t is ten o’clock in the morning. Clermont, just outside Durban, is quiet. Most people have gone to work. But some people are singing softly. They sing so beautifully they can make you cry. It is practice time for Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Everyday at ten, Black Mambazo get together, in the garage of their leader, Joseph Tshabalala. They sing and dance to keep their rhythm. The children know when it is practice time. They are there too, singing and dancing — and dreaming that one day they will sing and be famous like their heroes.
JOSEPH AND THE HIGHLANDERS
Joseph Tshabalala, leader of Black Mambazo, learnt to sing from his father. “I used to sit on my father’s lap, and listen to him sing.” says Joseph. “And when we went to bed, my father used to sing us to sleep. Singing was always part of my life.”
Joseph left his home, Ladysmith, 15 years ago. He went to work in Durban as a “spannerboy” at a building firm. “I joined a singing group called the Highlanders.” says Joseph/The Highlanders were not a bad group. But they had one problem — drink.
“They used to drink too much. When they were drunk, they came late for concerts. But when they weren’t drunk, they didn’t sing well. This made me lose a lot of sleep.
JOSEPH HAS A DREAM
“Then one night I had a dream. In my dream, an old lady, my father’s mother, spoke to me. She said, ‘I can see that you are having problems with this group of yours. Don’t worry, go and see your cousins, Albert and Milton Mazibuko. They will help you.”
The very next day Joseph went to the Mazibuko’s home. He told Albert and Milton’s father about his dream. He said, “Uncle, give me your two boys. I will teach them to sing with me. And the old man said, “Very good, my son. Your brothers are bored. They are drinking beer and doing naughty things. Talk to them.”
A SONG IN A STRANGE LANGUAGE
“We started there and then,” said Joseph. “We sang the first song I ever wrote. That song also came from a dream. In my dream I saw little children singing beautifully.
“I caught the tune but I could not catch the words. They were singing in a strange language. I used the tune and I made up words. I called it Nomathemba. It was the name of a girl I loved at the time. This song took us a long time to learn. But once we knew it, it was our favourite.
HOMEBOYS GET TOGETHER
On that first day Joseph sang with the Mazibuko’s. They were just three. The next day Headman, Joseph’s brother joined them.
Joseph left the Highlanders. And the two families — the Mazibuko’s and the Tshabalala’s, became the Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Today the group has 10 singers.
Joseph says, “We sing to make people happy. We sing about everything, about love, amabutho, imbongi, God and many other things.
SINGING HIGH AND WALKING TALL
“When we sing at concerts, we all wear the same clothes,” says Albert Mazibuko. “We all dance together when we sing. Our dance is called ‘Cothoza mfana’. It means ‘Walk proud, boy’.
“Joseph writes all our songs and I show everyone how to dance. Our music is called ‘Mbube’ or ‘scatamiya’ music. ‘Mbube’ music started long ago. ‘Mbube’ groups only use their voices. We never use guitars or pianos. So our voices must sound very beautiful.
BACK HOME IN LADYSMITH
Today everyone knows Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But Joseph says the first time they sang together, people laughed — until they heard them sing. “It was Christmas time.” Joseph remembers. “We went to Ladysmith. When we got there, people said, ‘Shame, Mr Tshabalala, you are singing with new people. Now you are singing with such small boys.’ But when my ‘small boys’ started to sing, people could not believe how well they sang.”
‘RECORDS STEAL YOUR VOICE’
“We used to sing in lots of competitions at that time. We won them all. People loved us. Everyone used to ask us to make records. But we thought we would make records when we were old. We thought that if we made a record, we would lose our voices.
“In the end my cousin arranged for us to go to Radio Bantu. We went but we were very afraid. We spoke to Mr Thusini and another woman, Doctor Haskisson. They made us sing many songs for them. But they were not happy. We were singing other peoples’ songs, not our own.
“Then we sang ‘Nomathemba’. They both liked it very much. So we sang more of our own songs. Soon afterwards we made our first album “Amabutho”. And the next year we went on our first tour around South Africa.”
BLACK MAMBAZO GOES FORWARD
Since that time Ladysmith Black Mambazo have made 23 albums — all of them great hits. And they have been all over the world. They have just come back from America now.
Black Mambazo sing most of their songs in Zulu. But because people love them all over the world, they now sing in other languages. They have made some songs in German, Sotho and English. And who can forget their famous English song “Hello my baby, Hello my shokolate”?
SIMPLE PEOPLE AT HEART
All this fame has not changed them at all. They are still simple people, like you and me. Joseph spends a lot of time with his children. “My son has his own group.” says Joseph. “They call themselves ‘White Mambazo’. They say we must look out for them. One day they will be more famous than Black Mambazo.”
Ladysmith Black Mambazo have started a fan club. So, if you want to write and tell them that you love their music, you can write to…