Music News

Long Walk to Freedom

"It's like they say in the States," says Ladysmith Black Mambazo's Albert Mazibuko, "don't hate the player, hate the game."

Then he laughs, but only because of how bizarrely out of place this droll chestnut of American street slang sounds in the context of what he's talking about, which is the extreme violence that raged during the apartheid era between members of the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party, South Africa's two long-clashing factions.

"I've seen everything," he says with a sad sigh. "All kinds of violence. It was so painful. I had a house that was situated between these two groups, right at the end of the ANC supporters' area. The IFP area was right across the street. Every time these people fought, they had to pass by my house."

Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which has maintained its status as South Africa's most famous musical act since the early 1970s, both within South Africa and throughout the world, has managed to address the issue of political violence in their songs throughout their career — yet still elude the wrath of either group. Although musically Mazibuko and his bandmates still had to use caution during the apartheid years, they were given a wide berth.

"I was living a neutral life," Mazibuko says. "People knew I was just a singer and that I didn't support any one side but supported the overall struggle for freedom. I was lucky. I remember some times when people were not allowed to go through ANC or IFP roadblocks. They would be doing things like burning tires [a discreet reference to "necklacing," in which gasoline is poured into a tire placed around a victim's neck and set on fire], but they would let me pass. They'd say, 'Oh, this is the guy from Ladysmith Black Mambazo. He's all right. '"

For those of us who have grown up in places where revolutionary struggle is an abstract idea rather than a daily reality, the concept of artists' bringing about social change understandably teeters on cliché. But Mazibuko's experience proves how the power of music can open channels of diplomacy that would otherwise remain closed.

"Some other musicians at home have been killed for taking sides," he says. "We never took sides. I had a hard time when we were invited by the IFP and sang at their rally. When I came back home, I found [ANC] people waiting for me. They said, 'Which side are you on?' I said, 'I'm not on any side. These people need to hear the peace message you are conveying. So, we are the ones that have to go to them because you can not go to them without violence. And then we can come to you and tell you what they say. They want to make peace with you. '"

War-weary guerrilla soldiers are hardly the only people who have found themselves irresistibly drawn to Ladysmith's rousing, a cappella blend of traditional Zulu singing and dance with American gospel harmonies. Since Paul Simon featured the group on his Graceland album and tour in 1986 — a move that helped catapult Ladysmith from superstar status on the African continent to proportionate visibility throughout the world — they are constantly besieged with collaboration requests from other musicians. Case in point: The 2006 album Long Walk to Freedom — the latest of more than 40 records — features appearances by such high-profile American guests as Emmylou Harris, Melissa Etheridge, Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, and Taj Mahal. One track brings together seven South African luminaries, including jazz/funk/world fusion trumpet giant Hugh Masekela and pop singer Thandiswa Mazwai.

In spite of all the guest appearances, the album maintains a steady, unwavering cohesion. This is largely because the music, though based on driving rhythms, rolls along at a casual, unassuming pace. And as much as the album ripples with earnestness and passion, the overall feel is one of understated calm. One clearly sees how Ladysmith has been able to focus its work as a disarming agent. And, thanks to Graceland, even the uninitiated are likely to recognize Ladysmith's signature cadences immediately. Listening to the new album, it becomes clear just how much of an impact the group's rhythmic approach had on Paul Simon and also how integral a role that approach played in Graceland's having such a distinct sound.

Looking back to Ladysmith's origins as impoverished factory workers and day laborers — to call those origins "humble" would be an understatement — the group's present status as worldwide celebrities seems unlikely beyond all hope. In the mid-'60s, when the group's founder, principal songwriter, and Mazibuko's second cousin, Joseph Shabalala, felt compelled to lead his men to quit their jobs, they were still performing in competition-style settings where the prize for winning consisted of... one whole muffin — which they would split ten ways. In other words, the prospect of making a living at music seemed ludicrous. Half of the members actually agreed and decided to stick with their jobs.

But, as Mazibuko describes the sense of mission that drove the group in its early days, it becomes easier to grasp how Ladysmith has consistently overcome daunting obstacles that, to the less determined, would have clearly appeared as insurmountable.

"The dream of singing," he enthuses, "was so overwhelming that we never even thought about what we were going to live with. You know, there is a time when you believe in something so much that you believe you can move mountains. I remember my mother and father scolded me very much. They said, 'You should be working! We are starving here. Who's going to take care of us?' I said to them, 'I don't know, but I believe we are going to accomplish something with this. I just don't know what. I cannot touch it, but I can feel it.' When we practiced, we would be consumed by the sound. Like we were living in our own fantasy world where we had everything — as long as we were singing, it felt like that."

This fantasy, however, has obviously come to bear in many ways on concrete reality. Later this year, Ladysmith hopes to open a school to teach traditional Zulu singing and dance forms. And, though the members of the group have been hoping to launch the school since 1991, the past suggests discounting the odds against them. Early on in the group's history, for example, with the discriminatory practices of the apartheid regime still going strong, the movement of nonwhites throughout South Africa was severely restricted.

"You had to have permission papers to travel around the country," Mazibuko explains. But for years, Ladysmith never had formal authorization to do so. So how did they circumvent this? Literally with song: Whenever they arrived at a police checkpoint, they would just start singing.

Laughing, Mazibuko says, "It worked every time!"

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Saby Reyes-Kulkarni