In 1964, Joseph Shabalala recalled having a series of dreams over six months. The dream was about one thing: melodies and harmony.
Shabalala was the founder and leader of a small-time South African choral music group known as Ezimnyama or The Black Ones.
Formed in the spirit of trans-municipal and trans-communal competitions, The Black Ones came from the modest town of Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal.
At the beginning of the last century, the South African cities that held promise – Johannesburg and Durban being the big two – were the places of green pasture for poor young men from the countrysides.
Johannesburg looked nothing like today’s cosmopolitan epitome. It was a mining town that needed miners, usually young men who had left villages in search of better lives.
The presence of the nouveau-riche, as well as the white establishment, held out economic opportunities other than mining too. Surplus income meant that entertainment was something those with money would pay for.
The Black Ones and Shabalala realized they had what it took to get paid.
He was the eldest of eight children who lived on a farm in Tugela, near Ladysmith with their parents.
In 2014, Shabalala told South Africa’s The Citizen, “When I was a young boy I dreamt of becoming an educated person; maybe a teacher, doctor or something like that.”
A harmless ambition but in extreme poverty proved impossible for Shabalala. After leaving school at the age of 12 when his father died, Shabalala worked on a farm and then later in a factory.
As a pastime, young men like Shabalala sang as groups against each other. Shabalala’s The Black Ones was one of these groups and it comprised a few family members, including his brothers.
When The Black Ones were formed in 1960, communal pride was at stake. At times, in competitions, the winning group may even be given just livestock.
For Shabalala, a simple Zulu man and his relatives in the 1960s, cattle could have no doubt meant a lot. What meant much more was the potential for The Black Ones if they transcended small town competitions.
It is reported that after Shabalala inculcated into his small group the harmony he picked up in his dreams, The Black Ones won almost every other competition they would join.
So they were banned from competing. Rather, organizers would have them perform to promote and spice up these competitions.
In 1964, The Black Ones changed their name to Ladysmith Black Mambazo as it became apparent that they had, for lack of a better word, outgrown KwaZulu-Natal.
Johannesburg and Durban laid ahead.
The sound of Mambazo was isicathamiya, an a capella-styled sound founded in the vein of Zulu musical and dance culture. The genre is an invention attributed to Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, pioneers of modern Zulu folk music.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo was the name inspired by the town from which the singers came; “black” for the black oxen the farm boys believed was the strongest and mambazo, Zulu for ax because they chop down the competition.
A 1970 radio performance on Radio Zulu opened the door to a recording contract. In 1973, Mambazo released Amabutho, the group’s first album and the first gold-selling album by black Africans.
Paul Simon, the other half of folk-rock duo Simon and Garfunkel went to South Africa in 1985 to recruit Mambazo for his eventual record-breaking album Graceland.
The path to global recognition interspersed with 16 Grammy nominations and five wins came after Mambazo’s connection to Simon. The relationship was mutually beneficial.
Simon’s single biggest song, “Diamond on The Soles of Her Shoes”, is a collaboration with Mambazo. So were Mambazo’s more popular tunes “Homeless” and “Mbube”.
Shabalala died today – February 11, 2020 – aged 78.