Get To Know Joseph Shabalala, Founder of Lady Smith Black Mambazo

Humanity’s first instrument was the human voice which happened to be the basic philosophy behind much of postmodern experimental performance. It is also the truth behind the music that a Zulu choir brought out of South Africa into recording and concert prominence in the United States. The ten members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo were the best-selling group in the Union of South Africa. I guess we owe it all to founder and lead singer Joseph Shabalala.

Joseph was born in the town of Ladysmith (eMnambithi district) in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa. His parents, Jonathan Mluwane Shabalala and Nomandla Elina Shabalala, raised Joseph and his six siblings on a white-owned farm called Tugela. Joseph found love in music he joined a well-known group, the Durban Choir, after he delighted audiences with his smooth guitar playing and soprano voice. 

In 1958, Joseph discovered an isicathamiya group, The Highlanders, led by his hero Galiyane Hlatshwayo. Hlatshwayo was the man who encouraged Joseph to use his voice powerfully. Joseph formed his own group the following year 1959, Ezimnyama (“The Black Ones”). A series of dreams Joseph had in his sleep in December 1960 was a major turning point in the formation of the group; when he saw how well his group did in the once-weekly iscathamiya  competitions, he renamed them Ladysmith Black Mambazo “Mambazo” meaning axe, referring to how the group chopped down the other choirs by winning almost every time.

After local radio airplay (on the SABC station Radio Zulu, Joseph accepted a recording contract that was offered in 1972 by Gallo Musi producer West Nkosi. The group sold over 40,000 copies of their first album and continued to do so through other recordings. 

Fast forward to the year 2018, Joseph Shabalala along with LadySmith Black Mambazo have gone to be world iconic legends taking African music beyond the African soil. The group has won a number of awards but one that stands out is the Grammy awards that they have managed to take home five times in a row.

If they don’t expire you as an African, then I have no idea what will.