The Grammy Award-winning South African a cappella singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo have performed all over the world for four decades--the only major countries it has missed being India and China--but some of its most ardent fans are those in the United States.
At least according to tenor Albert Mazibuko, a member since 1969 and a cousin of founder Joseph Shabalala.
"The audience reaction in the United States is amazing," the soft-spoken spokesman says. "The American listeners seem to understand our music even more than people who speak our language. When we meet them after the shows, and when they explain the meanings to the songs we are singing, it's really amazing how much they actually understand."
And it's not always the same crowds that show up, he says.
"We have toured the United States twice a year for the last 23 years, and what is good about it also is that it's not always all the same faces. We have a new audience almost every night. When we do see people we recognize from past tours, they are usually bringing new people with them."
Such is the infectious nature of the a cappella isicathamiya harmonies, the traditional singing style of the Zulu people, and the totally charming "tip-toe guys" dancing of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
The Ladysmith singing and dancing styles were developed during the late-19th century, when low-paid laborers in South African townships would get together to entertain each other on their one night a week off. The soft harmonies and tip-toe dance steps evolved so that the performers could do their thing without waking the security guards at their work camps.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo keep the style alive and will perform Saturday night, Feb. 23, at the Rialto Theatre.
The group's most recent CD, Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu, was released last month by Heads Up International. As the title says, the album is intended to pay tribute to the legendary South African icon Shaka Zulu, who was the first king of the Zulu nation.
Shaka Zulu has been a major inspiration on the lives and art of the nine members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
"We feel that Shaka Zulu is an inspiration to everyone in the world, not just South African people or the Zulu nation," says Albert Mazibuko.
Shaka Zulu, says Mazibuko, "was a great warrior and a great leader, a diplomat and a true visionary who fought for his people but who also sought peace. He was also an athlete, a dancer and a singer, so he is especially inspirational to us."
In the late-18th century, the charismatic Shaka, though he was born into poverty, united several disorganized subtribes to build a nation 250,000 strong. He is regarded as one of the most powerful leaders in African history, revered not only for his fierce spirit but his statesmanship.
"He never complained about his upbringing," Mazibuko says about Shaka. "Whatever people were, he respected their differences and brought them together with a common purpose so they could be one large tribe."
Mazibuko continues: "We have been touring to countries all over the world for many years, and the people we see are so different, but they can all learn about self-respect and getting along from the example set by Shaka Zulu. He can be inspirational to young people who might complain about their lives, because they can see he came from nothing and achieved so much. Shaka Zulu teaches us that you can do anything as long as you are inspired, that you can do anything you put your mind to, if you push yourself."
Ladysmith Black Mambazo first came to the attention of mainstream listeners in the United States when they appeared on Paul Simon's groundbreaking 1986 album Graceland. A year later, Simon produced Ladysmith's first U.S. release, which coincidentally was titled Shaka Zulu.
The group has since recorded with such Western acts as Stevie Wonder, The Winans, Julia Fordham, Michael Jackson, Dolly Parton, The Corrs, George Clinton and Ben Harper. Ladysmith Black Mambazo's acceptance into American culture was solidified--perhaps more than anything else--by their appearance on Sesame Street.
But Ladysmith Black Mambazo had existed in one form or another for more than 20 years before Simon traveled to South Africa to "discover" them.
Shabalala, who is now in his mid-60s and recently announced that he would soon retire from the group, formed what would become Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 1960 under the name Ezimnyama Ngenkani (The Black Ones). He first recruited friends and family, but Mazibuko says Shabalala did not find a solid core of serious members until 1969.
By that time, the group was known as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, named for its town of origin (Ladysmith), the most powerful breed of oxen (black) and the Zulu word for ax (mambazo), which signified the ability to "chop down" any musical rivals.
"(Shabalala) came to me and his brothers and my brother. Of course, we said we would join him, because he had been our hero since we were young."
Mazibuko says that Shabalala all along wanted to do more than simply form a singing and dancing group.
"He always wanted to compose songs that encourage people to strive to become better, to empower the people and to empower ourselves."