Any scholar of South African music can tell you Ladysmith Black Mambazo — who perform at the WOW Hall Thursday, Jan. 26 — are a force to be reckoned with.
When Mambazo formed in the early ’60s, they were so good that they were banned from entering singing competitions. Their obscure-sounding name is actually a bit of eloquent braggadocio: “Ladysmith” is founder Joseph Shabalala’s hometown, and “mambazo” means “axe” (they chop down the competition, you see).
It’s hard to imagine isicathamiya – a quiet, understated vocal music of Zulu origin – spreading far beyond Africa without Mambazo.
But most of the world knows Mambazo’s music secondhand. Their shoutout in Mean Girls brought a publicity boost that’s emphasized in their online bio. They’re in-demand international collaborators who’ve worked with everyone from David Guetta to Dolly Parton.
They’re perhaps best known for their role at the center of Paul Simon’s 1986 record Graceland, recorded with South African musicians at the height of a cultural boycott against the nation and its apartheid laws.
Albert Mazibuko, who joined Mambazo in 1969, insists the group was not exploited.
“On whether Paul Simon was wrong in breaking the boycott to work with South African musicians, people have different opinions on that,” Mazibuko says. “All the musicians who worked with Paul feel it was a good thing. It put a face and a sound on the struggles South Africans were enduring.”
Isicathamiya itself comes from that struggle. In the 1940s and 1950s, around the beginning of apartheid, disenfranchised Zulu workers migrated to mines across the country to find work. They would sing to keep themselves entertained – and when guards told them to stop, they’d just quiet down. Thus, the soft sound of isicathamiya.
“Our mission is to keep this style alive so the public remembers what sacrifices our people made,” Mazibuko says.
Nonetheless, he and the group have no qualms about complimenting other artists’ visions. Mazibuko is as happy to promote their new album, September’s tellingly-titled Walking In The Footsteps Of Our Fathers, as “an American gospel CD with a famous guest singer as well as a Woody Guthrie children’s album with another well known artist.”
“It’s one big beautiful piece of art we have been working on these past decades,” he says. “Sometimes you hear our singing alone and sometimes you hear it blended with other styles. That’s the beauty of music. So flexible!”
Ladysmith Black Mambazo perform 9:30 pm Thursday, Jan. 26, at the WOW Hall. $21 general admission, $33 seated. All ages.