How dreams guided Mshengu to stardom

14 February 2020 - 09:01
By Sam Mathe

Joseph Bhekizizwe Shabalala, 78, was a gentle natured international celebrity with humble beginnings in the countryside.

It was a difficult rural upbringing with little formal education and being a black farm tenant on a white man's property at the height of apartheid, certainly not a promising start for someone who was destined for global superstardom.

But like his biblical namesake, Shabalala was favoured with dreams that would eventually deliver him from his impoverished lot.

Blessed with a gift for song, music was his calling. In this regard he would use his sonorous voice and majestic harmonies of his group to spread the message of goodwill in the world.

A man of strong religious beliefs, Shabalala was convinced that his remarkable talent came from the same God who inspired his biblical equivalent to attain a high seat next to Pharaoh's throne.

He was born Joseph Bhekizizwe Siphathimandla Mxoveni Big Boy Shabalala on August 28 1941 in a place called Uthukela (Roosboom) in the district of Ladysmith, northern KwaZulu-Natal into a family of sharecroppers and traditional healers.

His mother was a qualified diviner and his father a notable herbalist. Although he later converted to Christianity and became an ordained minister, Shabalala continued to respect the Zulu customs of his forebears - particularly his parents' traditional role of interpreting the ancestral world and healing the sick.

Sharecropping meant that the family were tenants on a white man's farm. Family members, including children, were expected to work on the farm.

This set-up made it difficult for a schooling experience.

Subsequently, the family relocated to Mbuzweni, another area outside Ladysmith where he could go to school - which he did in 1948. However, in 1952 he was forced to leave school after his father died.

Back in Uthukela, he dabbled in several menial jobs, including herding livestock and gardening.

During spare time Joseph, his brothers and friends entertained themselves in the Zulu style of group singing, dancing and hand clapping.

The popular style at the time was known as isisheyameni - the forerunner of isicathamiya. Solomon Linda was a defining influence. His 1939 international hit, Mbube (later re-recorded across the world as The Lion Sleeps Tonight) would lend its name to a popular vocal style that later came to be known as isicathamiya.

Other favourite artists ranged from Jimmie Rodgers, regarded as the father of country music, to gospel pioneer Thomas A. Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson, the original queen of gospel.

Shabalala learnt to play the guitar while he was working in a Ladysmith restaurant named Guinea Fowl in 1958.

It was also here that his beautiful tenor caught the attention of the leader of a vocal harmony group called The Durban Choir, a strange name for an outfit that was not from Durban.

But in 1960 he went to Durban where he met Galiyane Hlatshwayo, an inspirational musician and leader of a popular vocal harmony group named the Highlanders.

Besides his vocal prowess, Hlatshwayo was also a skilled trainer of singers and played a crucial role in mentoring and nurturing Shabalala's talents. Shabalala formed his own a cappella group made up of unemployed young men like him and baptised it Lova Span, a reference to their loafing ways.

He later renamed it the Durban Choir, as a tribute to the group of his Ladysmith days, before he eventually settled for Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Like the black oxen that he used to inspan to plough fields back in the countryside, this choir was his black span, an axe that was destined to cut competition down to size.

That's how the name Black Mambazo was born, according to his explanation, although in 1958 there was already a kwela ensemble from Alexandra, Johannesburg, that was recording under a similar name.

The Ladysmith Black Mambazo of those early years performed at wedding ceremonies and other community events. Like the biblical Joseph, Shabalala in 1964 had a series of dreams over a period of six months.

The dreams or visions featured a choir singing in perfect harmony. The songs he heard in the dreams inspired him to sharpen his compositional skills and harmony.

In 1968 they started competing in weekly isicathamiya contests at hostels. The major competitions were held at the YMCA Hall in Beatrice Street in Durban.

Here they became perennial winners even at national level. At the time Enock Masina's King Star Brothers ruled the roost. But there were new kids on the Zulu a cappella block. They were chopping down all opposition.

From 1970 Ladysmith Black Mambazo began to make a series of singles in the form of transcription discs for the then Radio Zulu at the behest of SABC's music director, Dr Yvonne Huskisson.

Before that attempts to get them into the studio had been futile, thanks to an irrational fear of a microphone informed by a strange superstition Shabalala and his group members harboured about studio gadgets.

They believed that such Western technology could steal their voices. The station's legendary announcer and producer, Alexius Buthelezi presented Cothoza Mfana, a music programme on Zulu a cappella. The name means 'tread softly, young man' and has since become another term for the style, the common one being isicathamiya.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo's first radio hits were Nomathemba and Isitimela - songs that poignantly express how the migrant labour system dislocated the African family and alienated loved ones.

Though Shabalala is generally credited with composing Nomathemba, the original version was released in 1956 by Mabel Mafuya and The Lanterns under the Troubadour label with Zachariah Moloi credited as the song's author.

In 1973 the group released their first album, Amabutho under Gallo's black subsidiary, Mavuthela Records.

Buthelezi had recommended them to the record company following their incredible popularity with his listeners. The album was produced by West Nkosi, an extraordinary pennywhistle player and sax jive kingpin who found fame with Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens as leader of their backing ensemble, Makgona Tsohle Band.

Amabutho went gold within three weeks of its release, an excellent achievement for a debut, especially considering the fact that Rupert Bopape, head of Mavuthela Records, had doubted their star potential.

Then in 1976 he said he had a vision in which a voice told him to fast for four days for spiritual strength.

Subsequently, Ukusindiswa (1977), their seventh album and a collection of Zulu Christian hymns, turned platinum within three weeks - an unprecedented achievement for a South African group - black or white.

He and other members of the group had turned to the Apostolic faith and became staunch members of The Church of God of Prophecy in South Africa.

In 1981 Shabalala was ordained minister of the church in Clermont, Durban.

Accompanied by their manager Alfred Nokwe and Juluka, in the same year the group travelled abroad for the first time, performing in the German cities of Cologne, Hamburg and Frankfurt.

They even included a German song, Wir Grussen Euch Alle (We Greet You All) on their 1981 album, Phansi Emgodini.

These concerts were a springboard to international exposure and recognition. They would later consolidate their popularity in the UK market after starring in a baked beans TV commercial.

It was during the time in Germany that Paul Simon first saw them. When Simon visited the country in 1985 on a fact-finding mission to scout for black musical talent he could work with on his Graceland project, he had already identified Ladysmith Black Mambazo as one of his collaborators.

The subsequent recording sessions at London's famous Abbey Road studios resulted in the making of the crossover hit, Homeless after several frustrating attempts to combine their different musical sounds.

They later flew to New York where they recorded Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes in a factory hall.

Their appearance on Saturday Night Live, then the biggest American TV show with an audience of 60 million, introduced them to American audiences.

For the devout and God-fearing Shabalala, meeting and working with Simon was a divine act. And true to the Zulu name that he gave Simon, Vulindlela, meaning 'pathfinder' - he showed them the way into a new world of unimaginable opportunities.

On the other hand, the release of Graceland in 1986 and the subsequent global tours with Simon and fellow South African musicians Ray Phiri, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Isaac Mtshali and Bakithi Khumalo confirmed his prophetic name, Bhekizizwe - meaning 'one who looks up to foreign nations'.

Despite the political storm created by the cultural boycott, Graceland achieved unprecedented top-selling status, entered the UK hit parade on top spot and occupied number three on the US's national Billboard charts. It capped these achievements with a Grammy in the album of the year category.

Mambazo's 1987 album, Shaka Zulu was produced by Simon. It earned them their first Grammy in the best traditional folk recording category, a first by an African group.

Since the Graceland project the group has inspired a number of groundbreaking collaborations with a constellation of international stars from a range of musical traditions including American gospel, European classical music, country, soul, jazz and R&B.

These musicians included Dolly Parton, Stevie Wonder, Nathan East, Bonnie Raitt, Lou Rawls, Joe McBride and Emmylou Harris, to mention a few.

In 1993, at the request of Nelson Mandela, who declared the group 'SA's cultural ambassadors', they performed at the Nobel peace prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway, when Mandela and former president FW de Klerk were bestowed with the awards.

They were among top South African acts that performed at Mandela's historic presidential inauguration on May 10 1994 at the Union Buildings.

Their album, Wenyukela (2003), released for the North American market as Raise Your Spirits Higher, earned them a second Grammy award. During its recording the previous year Shabalala lost his wife of 30 years and Women of Mambazo lead singer, Nellie Shabalala. She was shot by what was believed to be a hired hitman.

Her son Nkosinathi and leader of Junior Mambazo, was accused of the murder. In 1991 he had lost a brother and group member, Headman Shabalala, when he was shot by an off-duty white policeman in what the family believed to have been a racially motivated murder.

In 2004, Ben Shabalala, a brother and former member of the group was killed in Durban.

Despite these family tragedies, Joseph Shabalala's strong faith has always lifted him.

The group concluded the 1990s on a high note and entered the new millennium stronger than ever.

Long Walk to Freedom (2006), an album that features industry giants such as Masekela, Lucky Dube, Joe McBride, Vusi Mahlasela, Thandiswa Mazwai, Phuzekhemisi, Zap Mama and Emmylou Harris, marked their 45 years in the industry and 20 years since Graceland.

It achieved two Grammy nominations.

In 2014, at the age of 72, Shabalala announced his retirement from performing as a full-time musician, citing health challenges that had come with advanced age.

"I need to take it easy and heal first before I can perform again. If I could help it, I will buy myself new limbs," he said jokingly.

But he was able to fly to the US to collect the group's fourth Grammy for Singing for Peace Around the World (2013), an album dedicated to President Mandela and the last he recorded.

As second-generation members of this illustrious group, his sons Sibongiseni, Thulani, Thamsanqa and Msizi Shabalala have matured into accomplished singers, performers and leaders in their own right. They have accepted his weighty baton with a sense of duty and responsibility and have taken the group to new heights.

More significantly, they have bagged their fifth Grammy for their latest album, Shaka Zulu Revisited (2017), released to pay tribute to the founder and to mark the 30th anniversary of the original album.

Joseph Shabalala leaves behind a peerless legacy that includes 60 albums, numerous awards and an incredible cultural treasure that continues to touch the world with its artistry.