Joseph Shabalala is living his dream. His Mambazo Foundation for South African Music & Culture exists because “Mambazo always dreamed of (my) dream of Ladysmith Black Mambazo Music Academy,” the group’s leader said by phone from Durban, South Africa. “Now we are getting new groups and somehow, somewhere, we work with them.”
When not on tour with the band, he travels the country raising funds for efforts to teach South African students about their culture.
Dreams are important to Shabalala. The traditional South African choral song that his 10-man a capella group performs, he says, came to him in a dream, sung to him by a chorus of children from many cultures.
Already well known as a wedding singer, he was asked in 1963 to perform the music he heard in his dreams for a wedding in which the groom was from a neighboring tribe that had been fighting with Shabalala’s people.
“I said ‘Because we have this wonderful music, you have been listening very carefully and the sound is there, let’s go there and sing for these people.’ After the wedding, the fighting stopped–a bit of magic that Shabalala says inspired him to form the group.
Ladysmith’s dances were also adapted by Shabalala, not from a dream, but from miners. The steps that the group refers to as tiptoe dancing originated in South African mining camps when the miners wanted to dance after work without attracting attention from the guards patrolling the work camps. “That one was from the Zulu dance, and also from the tiptoe and also from my dream to follow the sound,” Shabalala says.
The group’s latest release, Wenyukela, which translates to “raise your spirit higher,” celebrates the 10th anniversary of the end of apartheid–an era they remember well. They performed at both President Nelson Mandela’s inauguration and the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for former president F.W. de Klerk.
A year after the transition of power, Shabalala’s first song, Nomathemba, was adapted into a play about the country and its struggles to overcome apartheid. “It was a political song to encourage each and everyone that you can’t make it without your hope,” he says. “You must have that power, and then you’re to make it.”
Wenyukela carries on in that tradition. But in spite of the message of peace and harmony that the band promotes, they are not spared from the violence that is unfortunately still a part of everyday life in South Africa. On the album Shabalala’s grandchildren perform the song “Tribute,” which they wrote as a eulogy to Shabalala’s wife, murdered outside of their church during the recording of Wenyukela.
The group is in Durham for two nights, Tuesday and Wednesday, Mar. 2-3, at the Carolina Theatre with both shows starting at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25. Call 560-3030 for information or visit www.carolinatheatre.org