Something wonderful grew

Joseph Shabalala had a dream. He was to create a male voice choir which would sing with heavenly harmony and bring change to his land and to the world. All of which, for a black man in Apartheid South Africa in 1964, was preposterous. But Shabalala did form his choir, and though it took a long time, he did help bring change to his country, and to the world.

black miners

Black South African miners, c. 1960. Image: South African History Online

The music of the group later called Ladysmith Black Mambazo had its origins in South Africa’s mines. To support their families, many black men had to spend much of the year far from their homes and families, living in single-sex barracks near the mines. Their wives and children were forced to remain in designated “homelands”. Conditions for the miners were appalling: South Africa’s mines are so deep that they are heated by the Earth’s core – temperatures at the face can exceed 40 degrees. Safety gear scarcely existed.

From this hardship and loneliness and exploitation, something wonderful grew. The men, exhausted and far from home, formed choirs, and developed a style of singing which fused the traditions of miners from different regions, along with western church music.

Joseph Shabalala and his choirs (there were different ensembles and names over time) mastered this music, especially the styles known as mbube and isicathamiya. Mbube is a brasher style—the name means “lion” in the Zulu language—while isicathamiya is gentler, more subtle. Both incorporate a call-and-response pattern, with complex shifts in rhythm and extraordinary many-part harmonies.

Shabalala

Joseph Shabalala in 2010. Image: World Music Central.org

Like most people outside Africa, I first heard Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland. The group, already huge in their native land, toured the world and became symbolic of the struggle against Apartheid. White minority rule came to an end, more peacefully than anyone could have dreamed, in 1993

The journey since has been hard. As I write, South Africa is at a crossroads. The African National Congress, the one-time hero of the liberation struggle, is struggling to reform itself. Since the end of Apartheid, the ANC has continually been in power. As happens when any group stays in power for a long time, greed and corruption and mismanagement have crept in. But every revolution passes through growing pains, disappointment and reversal. Better days will come.

In politics, no one ever achieves harmony in the way Ladysmith Black Mambazo does in music. But such beauty, borne of such hardship, remains inspiring, a symbol of the best in humanity. Just listen!

  • Artist: Ladysmith Black Mambazo
  • Album: Homeless (compilation)
  • Track: A5 “Baleka Mfana” (roughly translated, ‘run away, boy!’)
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Dino Music
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: DIN 084
  • Year: Unknown (compilation late 1980s)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and more than one thousand others, are for sale via Discogs

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