Joseph Sha­bal­ala: From hum­ble be­gin­nings to the world

Sha­bal­ala turned gift for song into trea­sure

Sowetan - - Front Page - 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 God­fear­ing 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.

/ ED­DIE MTSWENI / JACK VARTOOGIAN/ GETTY IM­AGES

Lead singer Joseph Sha­bal­ala dances of joy dur­ing a Lady­smith Black Mam­bazo per­for­mance at Car­ni­val City in Brak­pan. Sha­bal­ala poses for photos at the Luther Bur­bank Cen­ter, Cal­i­for­nia in 1994.

/ JACKIE CLAUSEN / JACK MITCHELL/GETTY IM­AGES / VATHISWA RUSELO

Lady­smith Black Mam­bazo’s Joseph Sha­bal­ala in his study at home. The cast of ‘Song of Ja­cob Zulu’, fea­tur­ing Lady­smith Black Mam­bazo, pho­tographed at the Step­pen­wolf Theatre in Chicago in February 1993. Lady­smith Black Mam­bazo performing.

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