Ladysmith Black Mambazo brings timeless harmonies to Pittsfield

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PITTSFIELD — Ladysmith Black Mambazo inspired Nelson Mandela.

"He shook hands with us and said, keep [up] the good job guys. Your music has been a great inspiration [for] me while I was in jail," group member Albert Mazibuko recalled of their first encounter with the anti-apartheid leader in 1990 during a 2014 NPR interview. "From there, he never let us go. Everywhere he goes, he wants Ladysmith Black Mambazo to be there."

The South African isicathamiya ensemble, which accompanied Mandela to his 1993 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, was world-renowned for its harmonies by that point, and they continue to be a musical and cultural force today. The group's repertoire melds the tradition of Zulu harmony, singing songs born in the mines during the apartheid era, with hints of gospel. In January, the a cappella virtuosos picked up their fifth Grammy award, winning best world music album for "Shaka Zulu Revisited: 30th Anniversary Celebration."

"It gives us a lot of energy ... and it makes us focus more," Mazibuko, a nearly 50-year member of the group, told The Eagle during a telephone interview in advance of the group's performance at The Colonial Theatre on Friday night.

"Shaka Zulu" won a Grammy for best traditional folk recording almost three decades ago. That honor came shortly after working with Paul Simon on his famous 1986 record, "Graceland."

"It was the best thing that ever happened [to us]. ... It was a blessing of a blessing, that's what I can say, because we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for 'Graceland,'" Mazibuko said.

Before Simon discovered Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the group had been a prominent act in South Africa for more than two decades. Joseph Shabalala started the ensemble in the early 1960s. The group's name draws from Shabalala's childhood. He grew up in Ladysmith, a town on a nearly direct path between Johannesburg and Durban. He was a farmer and factory worker. The former occupation motivated the "Black" portion of the ensemble's moniker; it represents the strength of an oxen. In Zulu, "Mambazo" means chopping ax, another nod to vocal power.

Shabalala's cousin Mazibuko joined in 1969 after Shabalala told him he had a dream of sharing a message of peace, love and harmony through song around the world.

"And I said, `Wow. That big?'" Mazibuko recalled. "And he said, `Yes, if we can do it right, it's going to take us places.' I said, `OK.'"

Previously, the group's first iteration had flopped.

"They were lazy," Shabalala told Grant Britt of North Carolina's The News & Record.

Mazibuko had his doubts when the group's leader described the harmonies and melodies from his dream.

"It sounds so wonderful but so challenging," Mazibuko recalled thinking.

The difference in this version of the ensemble was its devotion to the work.

"Let's sit down and dedicate ourselves and try to do it right," he said of their mindset.

That mentality was vital when Simon expressed interest in collaborating with the group.

"This is an opportunity we have to grab with both hands," Mazibuko said of their attitude.

Simon met them in South Africa. They recorded in New York and London, the group's harmonies opening songs such as "Homeless."

''My typical style of songwriting in the past has been to sit with a guitar and write a song, finish it, go into the studio, book the musicians, lay out the song and the chords, and then try to make a track,'' Simon told The New York Times' Stephen Holden in 1986. ''With these musicians, I was doing it the other way around. The tracks preceded the songs. We worked improvisationally. While a group was playing in the studio I would sing melodies and words — anything that fit the scale they were playing in."

Ladysmith Black Mambazo didn't peak with "Graceland" or "Shaka Zulu," necessarily. The group has been nominated for 17 Grammys, including "Songs of Peace & Love for Kids & Parents Around the World," which was nominated at the most recent Grammys.

"Different colors, means nothing to me/Different names means nothing to me," the ensemble sings in "Different Colors Mean Nothing to Me (Unkulunkulu Wethu)."

The group has an "amazing setlist" for The Colonial show, featuring songs from the most recent Grammy-nominated records, according to Mazibuko. Dancing has also typically been part of their performances, with white shoes being kicked high in the air.

Mazibuko said it's "huge" that a South African group is touring and singing around the world, particularly one that hasn't deviated from its roots.

"We are, maybe I could say, the only group that tries to keep the culture and stay in our tradition as much as we [can]," Mazibuko. "Because I've seen all the groups that are around the world, [and] when they are doing their music, sometimes they are influenced by watching what is happening around [them]. ... I believe Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a group that I can say, we are keeping the culture."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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