Skip to content

South Africans Remember the Man who Took the SA Sound to the Grammys

Joseph Shabalala died on Tuesday at the age of 78 and is being remembered for creating Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the global phenomenon which won multiple Grammys and performed for royalty and presidents alike and whose music made it all the way to Hollywood. Shabalala died at a Pretoria hospital following complications from back surgery that left him wheelchair-bound, according to local media. Shabalala assembled the group in the early 1960s when he was a young farmboy turned factory worker. According to the group’s website, he took the name Ladysmith from his hometown in KwaZulu-Natal. The word black was a “reference to the oxen, the strongest of all farm animals, Joseph’s way of honoring his early life on his family’s farm. Mambazo is the Zulu word for chopping axe, a symbol of the group’s vocal strength”. A radio broadcast in 1970 opened the door to their first record contract, which they describe as “the beginning of an ambitious discography that currently includes more than sixty albums”. The group was popularised abroad by Paul Simon’s 1986 Graceland album. Simon was criticised by some at the time for working with musicians while South Africa was still under apartheid rule. But his album opened up a global audience to the traditional Zulu harmony-driven acapella and an international following for Ladysmith Black Mambazo.