After a career spanning 47 years and an output of original studio albums nearing 50, you would think that Ladysmith Black Mambazo would be somewhat inured to the life of a touring group, to the point of going through the motions. Not quite. According to Albert Mazibuko, one of two surviving original members of the South African choral group, ‘life on the road is still wonderful, and we love it… it keeps you on your toes, it’s beautiful’. A relentlessly positive man, when asked about his future he says he envisages spending the rest of his life with the group: ‘you know, I still give myself another thirty years. I’m sixty three, so I’ll see when I’m ninety-something’.
Mazibuko presents their new album, Songs from a Zulu Farm, as something of a change: ‘We thought about it and said, wow, man, we have been working so hard all these years – let’s go back to our childhood… when you’re children it’s so wonderful, connecting with nature’, perhaps an explanation for the profusion of songs named after animals. Upbeat as he is about recording, performing is the topic that truly gets Mazibuko passionate. The group’s UK tour began on the 19th May, and rarely is a man so excited to be headed to Ipswich. He says that ‘people… give us the happiness as we are sharing our music with them, so [performing] is very important’. This is what they are about. The founder described the group as on ‘a mission’ and this mission, to Mazibuko, is the spreading of happiness.
Travelling with Nelson Mandela to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony as well as performances at his inauguration and birthday the following year mean their music is to many tied up with memories of South Africa’s nineties rebirth. Mazibuko says that Mandela’s bestowal of the title of ambassadors for South African music on the group ‘made us want to do more, and try almost to be perfect… to not disappoint this guy and our country. It’s a great thing’.
This encouragement may have been what spurred the group to the establishment in 1999 of the Ladysmith Black Mambazo Foundation. Mazibuko describes it as the starting point for an eventual goal ‘to form a school to help teach indigenous music to South Africans’. Protection of traditional culture is the aim, mainly from American music, but he is optimistic about the future, hoping ‘some group [will] come out and do as we have’.
Ladysmith are in the UK doubtless best known for their collaboration with Paul Simon on ‘Graceland’, and understandably so: it’s a corker. Beyond that people seem to at best be able to pin them down as belonging to that most elastic of genres, World Music. This is a pity. Their harmonies are sometimes staggeringly beautiful, and the sense of joy and wonder that Mazibuko talks about so passionately is palpable, despite the language barrier. Perhaps this is because of their attitude: when pressed on the fact that most of their music is written in Zulu, a language with which most of their international fans are not familiar, he was sanguine: ‘the words are not important – it’s the sound and the feeling and the energy behind it that’s important… it speaks to the blood because it’s from the blood’.
A cynic could attempt to cavil with Mazibuko’s positivity but it seems genuine. When he says ‘This tour is about happiness, about celebrating life’, you believe him.