It is not necessary to understand their language to have their message come through says Albert Mazibuko of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
The Grammy Award-winning group from South Africa, which opens 2008 with three New England concerts, continues to make its meaning clear with joyous, spiritually uplifting and life affirming music and intriguing native choreography that quickly get to the heart of what they are all about.
"We sing of peace, love and harmony. We've always sung a message of people working with each other to find a better place for all," said Mazibuko, a veteran member of Ladysmith. "The way (founder) Joseph (Shabalala) has constructed the voices in the group brings about a lovely, beautiful sound."
Sometimes people want to know exactly what the group is singing since they vocalize primarily in Zulu, Mazibuko said. "We understand this, but sometimes it's best to listen to the CD as you would an instrumental recording. We don't use instruments, we use our voices so we want people to listen to our singing as if our voices were instruments, creating a sound for people to listen to," he explained.
Ladysmith performs at 11 a.m. on Jan. 15 at St. Paul School in Concord, 8 p.m. on Jan. 16 at The Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, Mass., and 8 p.m. Jan. 18 at Sanders Theatre at Harvard University.
Mazibuko said that Shabalala founded Ladysmith Black Mambazo in the early 1960s and he continues to lead the group today.
"Ladysmith is from Zululand in South Africa and we are very proud of our culture and history. We sing a traditional style of Zulu music called Isicathamiya," Mazibuko said.
This incorporates a style of dancing known as "tip toeing," developed in the 1950s when the black men in South Africa were sent to work in the mines, and elsewhere, and were away from their homes for months at a time.
When they would entertain themselves by singing and dancing, the guards would stop them because they said the dancing was too loud. So the miners developed a style of dancing called "tip toeing" so they wouldn't disturb the guards.
"Our mission these past 40-plus years has been to spread our Zulu culture to all parts of the world. The best way to keep our culture alive is through what we do. The young people forget their history because of western influences. We don't want them to forget their history," Mazibuko explained.
In their travels, they have found their audience has no boundaries.
"Young, old and in between come to hear us sing. We've been told we're a great show for people who have just met and begun dating. We also have been told that families enjoy coming to our shows because everyone comes together from our performance. We seem to touch something in everyone. It is truly a blessing we are conscious of everyday."
He enjoys making a connection with audiences "and seeing in their faces how much they are enjoying what we do on stage."
Ladysmith, he said, has always delivered a message of positive thinking, of keeping yourself on the road to being a better person.
"It's easy to get angry and adopt a negative attitude, since there are so many problems in our world. But, we've always believed that you can rise above your problems by keeping a positive attitude. It helps keep you focused on what you can do in life. Yes, it comes in part from our spirituality, but it's just something that is a part of our culture."
That is reflected in Ladysmith Black Mambazo's latest CD, "Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu," set for worldwide release Jan. 15.
"Joseph is always writing songs and ideas. We constantly practice them to find the right way to finish them. Since we hadn't recorded new songs since 2003 we did spend a lot of time working on these songs. As well, since it had been so long (for us) to record new traditional songs, we wanted to praise King Shaka. He is very important to our people and history."
Mazibuko does not view this as a concept album, carrying through with a theme or group of themes.
"In all of our recordings we try to convey a message of peace, love and harmony. We try to bring all people together," he said.
"It's closing in on 50 years since Joseph first formed his own group and it's important for us to show people we remain true to who we have always been. Sometimes people don't like when we try recordings that aren't pure tradition. We understand how they feel, though we still believe it very important for any creative group to try new and different ideas. However, for us, returning to tradition is very important."
As with all of their traditional recordings, Mazibuko said the group hopes that people find this CD "interesting and beautiful." "We try to convey a feeling of love of people. We try to convey a message of peace."
As to the role the members' spirituality plays in the creative process, he said,
"Our spirituality is very important to us, (and expressed) more in who we are and what we are trying to do then in the context of our songs."
Some of the songs are of a religious nature and are important to the group, he acknowledged.
"However, we know people have various views on religion and we're not trying to force our feelings on others. They can take from these songs what they want."
Many people seem impressed with the optimism Ladysmith maintains about life, regardless of the challenges that it and everyone faces. Keeping such a positive attitude is important, Mazibuko said.
"This is not just us, but all the black people in South Africa. Apartheid could have made our people an angry, vengeful population but we didn't let this happen. Of course there was some of this, and continues through today. But if you consider all that our people have endured, we've kept a very positive attitude toward life and our future," he explained.
"We knew better days were ahead and we knew we would enjoy them when they came. Of course we hated apartheid and the conditions we were forced to live in, but we didn't let this destroy our joy of life."
In the press liner notes for the new CD, Joseph Shabalala spoke about various songs on the album.
Of the track, "Iphel'" Emasini," based on a Zulu proverb, he said the essence of the message is: "Try to look past the bad things and focus on the good things, Otherwise, you'll be afraid to enjoy life."
When Albert Mazibuko is asked if it is realistic in these troubling times to believe that people will embrace this message and act on it, he responded with his own question.
Mazibuko: "Isn't it better to have such a message that can reach some people than not to have such a message at all?
"We cannot say 'things are so bad let's all just give up.' We cannot follow that message. What will overcome terrible times are messages from people about rising above the bad, about being a better person. If it positively affects one percent of the people who hear it, then it was a good thing to do. If it affects more than one, that's even better. Black South Africans have had little to look forward to in their lives, but we did not give up. We didn't feel it was unrealistic to look toward a day when we would have better lives. How awful our lives would have been if we did."
Music remains a way to bring people together, to bridge cultures and countries, he added. "Music cannot be stopped by borders and boundaries. Music is about people coming together and having an experience that will, hopefully, better their lives."
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