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Ladysmith Black Mambazo On A Mission To Preserve Culture


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Finally, on this President’s Day, we hear, again, from a group that was a favorite of another president – former South African president Nelson Mandela. Now if you are a fan of world music, they need no introduction. Ladysmith Black Mambazo have been singing together for 50 years. They were brought together in 1964, after Joseph Shabalala, a young farm boy turned factory worker from the town of Ladysmith, had a dream.

It was a dream of tight vocal harmonies and messages of peace. And it was a dream that led to global success and collaborations with everybody from Paul Simon to Dolly Parton and Stevie Wonder, and the love of their number one fan, Nelson Mandela. But the band has been first and foremost a family. Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s new album "Always With Us," celebrates the life and music of Joseph's wife Nellie by merging her old church vocals with their own. Here’s a clip.


MARTIN: This year they won their fourth Grammy for best world music CD. They are currently touring the U.S., but we were lucky that they were able to make time for us to stop by for a live performance chat in our performance studio, studio 1, here in Washington, D.C. Albert Mazibuko, the last original member of the band on this tour, began by introducing the rest of the group.

ALBERT MAZIBUKO: Sanbonani. Here, I have Thamsanqa Shabalala, on my right, who is the youngest of Shabalala - Joseph's sons. I have Mfanafuthi Dlamini. I have Pius Shezi. And I have Msizi Shabalala, one of the sons. I have Babuyile Shabalala - the third generation of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Joseph's grandson. And I have Russel Mthembu. And I have Thulani Shabalala, also the son. I have Abednego Mazibuko, who's my brother. And Sibongiseni Shabalala, also a son.

MARTIN: Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for coming. You have chosen to start today with a song that launched your international career after you recorded it with Paul Simon for the "Graceland" album, an album that many people, I'm sure, have played and played and played so many times they have it by heart. It is "Homeless." Am I correct?


MARTIN: That's what you'll start with today. Here it is. Here's "Homeless."


MARTIN: Thank you so much. The song is as beautiful and as fresh today, I think, for many of us as when we first heard it. Mr. Mazibuko, it was 30 years ago since you first recorded that song. Do you remember thinking about what it would mean to have your work heard, to have your voices heard outside of South Africa?

MAZIBUKO: You know, I remember exactly when we recorded this song because after we recorded the song and then I listened to it, and then I said to myself, this is the song that is going to give us the wing. So there's nothing will stop us now. Our music will be heard all over the world.

MARTIN: And you've just won your fourth Grammy award for your last album. What does number four feel like?

MAZIBUKO: You know, I cannot explain how I felt when I had it. It was so wonderful. You know, I felt that I was flying. I said, wow, this is - because we have won, you know, Grammys, but this one is very important because it is dedicated to the man who dedicated his life to peace.

MARTIN: Nelson Mandela.

MAZIBUKO: He is been a good friend for the group, and then he has been a good friend for everybody.

MARTIN: He had a very special relationship with this group. Would you mind describing it?

MAZIBUKO: You know, we first met him in 1990 - it was his birthday, July 18 - in Johannesburg. We sang the first song, the second song, the third song. And then I saw this tall man. He's just standing up. I saw the people. They were running around and trying to stop him. And he joined us, and he did his dance. We called it Madiba dance. And then we joined in. And then after we finished the song, he shook hands with us. He said, keep the good job, guys. Your music has been a great inspiration for me while I was in jail. And we were so honored and then were so taken aback. From there, he never let us go. Everywhere he goes, he wants Ladysmith Black Mambazo to be there. I remember, even when he went to Oslo to receive his Nobel Peace Prize. And then he even chose the songs that he wanted us to sing there. It was two songs, but we're able to do that.

MARTIN: He was guest DJ, too...


MARTIN: ...Among his other talents, which we did not know about. And the new album "Always With Us," as we mentioned, it's a tribute to Nellie, who you describe as the family matriarch. But I have to say that the beauty has always been connected to sadness in that Nellie and then members of the band - Ben and Headman - all died at some point, violently. And I wonder how you deal with that, that kind of loss, without having it take over your music.

MAZIBUKO: You know, even when we lose people, the music has been there to comfort us. I remember every time when we hear the bad news, we always come together and sing and pray. So when you're singing, the music, it transports you from this physical body to another body that has never known sorrow. So that's why some of the songs in this album, we say, there's no more sorrow.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having a special performance and conversation with South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo. And I'm speaking to one of the band's last originals, Albert Mazibuko. And he's speaking for the group. They're all here in our Washington, D.C. studios. And we're really glad to welcome them here. I wanted to ask, if you don't mind - I would like to ask grandson a question, if we may.


MARTIN: Refresh us on the name.

BABUYILE SHABALALA: Babuyile Shabalala.

MARTIN: Thank you for coming, also. So you're the third generation...

SHABALALA: That's right.

MARTIN: ...Of Shabalalas who are performing with Ladysmith.

SHABALALA: That's right.

MARTIN: And you're also part of the born free generation, yeah. You don't remember the bad, old days, I guess.

SHABALALA: Not much really, but I remember looking at TV and seeing my granddad and my fathers with Nelson Mandela. And I remember that being really something great, and we used to talk about it at school.

MARTIN: It's hard to describe, I think, what it meant for the rest of the world to see your group and to hear their music. And it was the beginning of this great opening, yeah? A feeling of, finally, now the world has changed. And of course, we all know that there are still issues in the new, you know, South Africa. And I wonder ,what do you think is your message for today's South Africa?

SHABALALA: I'd like people our age to preserve this type of culture and they type of heritage because it's very important. And having been on tour for the first time with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, it's been humbling to see the people's responses and how much people appreciate this music and how much people really love it. I remember, we were in Germantown the other night, and there was a lady out front. And she was crying throughout the whole show. And that was so humbling, and it was a real honor. I just couldn't describe that feeling. Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think you'll go back and tell your - see, peers - that's one of those words that only adults use to talk down to kids - I'm sorry, I apologize, OK. But what - your friends, you know, who are your age, what do you think you would like them to know? And on our side of it, what would you like to tell us from them?

SHABALALA: I'd like them to take - what my grandfather said is that he wanted to plant seeds deep down into the earth that will grow into and become strong trees and that the strong winds of change will not make them fall. And I like to believe that I'm one of those seeds, and I want everyone else to be one of those seeds.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. I understand that you have another song for us.

MAZIBUKO: Yes, I would like Babuyile to introduce that song, "Izembe Mfana."

SHABALALA: The next song is from our latest compilation "Always With Us." It's a song that is basically telling a young man who's about to get ready to get married - and he's nervous and he's got cold feet - telling him, stop. Don't run away. Marriage is good for you. It'll make you a better man. So here is the following song, "Izembe Mfana."


MARTIN: About fear of commitment, huh? Let me see if we can arrange to play that over the loudspeakers.


MARTIN: Well, thank you all so much for coming. And congratulations again on the Grammy. Mr. Mazibuko, I have to ask you, what do you think is the key to keeping the group together all of this time to this point and then on into the future as the elders leave us? What do you think is the key to it?

MAZIBUKO: You know, I think the spirit of family is - that's what keeps the group, you know, together. We grew up as traditional people. We listened to our grandmother and fathers and aunties. So we saw that at home, people they work together. If someone get frustrated with something, if someone older than you come and say stop it, you just stop. If you have an opinion, you just presented opinion with respect. So it keeps us going. And Professor Shabalala, the founder of this group, he lifted that example so that we took it from him. Right now, we are planting it to the next generation. And it helps us a lot. I think if everyone can do that, it's healthy.

MARTIN: Well, thank you again. And I understand that there's one more song that you wanted to leave us with. And it's "No More Sorrow," which is from the latest album "Always With Us." Will you tell us a little bit about it?

MAZIBUKO: This song is dedicated to a very important person to us. And then she is no longer with us, though. Her name is Nellie Shabalala. She was the wife of our leader Joseph Shabalala. So the song it's - we say, even though she's no long with us, but she's always with us.

MARTIN: Ladysmith Black Mambazo are currently on a U.S. tour. They were very kind to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios just on the heels of their latest Grammy win. They're here with us in Washington, D.C. I've been speaking with Albert Mazibuko. And he's speaking on behalf of the group. The group is all here. Thank you all so much for joining us. And now we'd like to give you the appreciation you deserve.


MARTIN: And now we will hear "No More Sorrow."


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.