A conversation with Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Albert Mazubiko

Ladysmith Black Mambazo may have achieved international recognition from singing with Paul Simon on Graceland, but its staying power as the world’s most prominent South African choral group is something its members earned from 41 years of unflagging dedication. Albert Mazibuko, one of the group’s original members, chose to keep us on our toes when asked about performing “Homeless” at the Paramount Wednesday night. But he had much to say about the group’s recent work.

What songs are you most excited about performing on this tour?

We are most looking forward to the songs from our most recent album, Songs from a Zulu Farm. This is the album that took us back to our childhood. There is a one that is talking about a donkey that has been chasing people, which is one of the songs that we used to sing as children. Some of the farm songs have been expanded, because traditionally they are chants, but most of them on the album are just as they were originally.

During the recording of these songs we were talking among ourselves and decided to ask our friends from here in America if they grew up with any farm songs, and every time they said “Old MacDonald.” So in our concerts we sing that but sing it in Zulu and it is wonderful. Every time we perform this song we invite the audience to join us. This is a very joyful album. We wanted to have joy this time, because for a while we have been singing songs about freedom.

When you mention freedom your 1993 album comes to mind.

Yes, Liph’ Iqiniso. Those are the songs that we were singing to celebrate the end of apartheid in South Africa. Every time we write music we want to send a message to the people and unite them, and at the time our message was that freedom has arrived. And then some of the people were confused, so they started to fight among themselves for power, so we were just trying to send that message to stop fighting and just get together. As the saying says, united we stand and divided we fall.

Vusi Mahlasela recently came to Charlottesville, and we are very good friends with him. Because Vusi grew up in the ’70s when there was uprising, he encouraged people to fight for freedom in his music, which is all very inspiring. We admire him very much.

Joseph has described your group as a kind of mobile academy. Do you see yourself as educating people about South Africa?

That is an important part of our mission, to encourage people—people in South Africa, especially—to speak to their culture and be proud of themselves and their traditional music. In our own country there is a Ladysmith Black Mambazo foundation that attempts to serve this and other needs. We are even trying to generate some scholarships for the kids but the money has been very tight lately. When we go around sometimes we collect things that have been used, like computers, or books, or whatever that can help in terms of education at home, because sometimes our schools don’t have enough money to provide this equipment they need to teach.

The group originated in Ladysmith, South Africa, where most of you were born and raised. Can you explain where the rest of the name comes from?

The word “mambazo” means the chopping axe, which is a very important tool. If you don’t have an axe, your life in Ladysmith won’t start, because you need to have an axe to chop your trees, to build your house, to make a yoke for your oxen, and to build the sled that transports your crops. So not only is it a great tool for the farm, but you need it when you are walking in the forest you so you can pave the way.

The “black” in our name we took from the ox, because when we were on the farm we were using oxen of different colors, but our leader Joseph Shabalala was the driver of a black oxen, and we found that they were more powerful than most. So when anything is stuck—it might be a plow or something—the black oxen can pull it out. So we said with our voice we will pave our way and build our future.

"Ladysmith Black Mambazo sings for YouTube."

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