Out of Africa

An Evening with Ladysmith Black Mambazo
7 p.m. Tuesday, March 2
Mahaffey Theater, 400 S. First St., St. Petersburg

In 1964, Joseph Shabalala had a dream. Not the figurative, "I have a dream" sort of dream, but an actual nocturnal experience. Shabalala dreamed of voices raised in perfect harmony, of the most beautiful music to unite his people — the isicathamiya music of the Zulu population of South Africa.

Joseph Shabalala's dream came true, as leader of the internationally recognized, multi-Grammy Award-winning group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The choir has been performing together for nearly 50 years, and in that time, has seen South Africa change from a culturally oppressed, violent, civil rights nightmare to a united, free and flourishing society.

"A dream is a powerful thing," says Albert Mazibuko, one of Shabalala's cousins and an original member of the group. Mazibuko's voice is rich and melodic, despite the crackling interference on the phone from South Africa. "A dream is a message from God, and God saw fit to direct my cousin to create beautiful music," he says.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo first came to the States' attention when they performed with Paul Simon on his Graceland album in 1986, and since then they have performed worldwide with artists as diverse as George Clinton, Sarah McLachlan, Pete Seeger and Josh Groban to name a few.

They also performed for Nelson Mandela at his inauguration in 1994. "That was quite a day," says Mazibuko. "I remember thinking, 'This man is going to change our lives.' And he did. He brought the kinds of changes we only dreamed of before. And he was thanking us for singing? I was thanking him for changing our lives."

Mazibuko speaks grimly of the time before Mandela, of the apartheid system and the ever-present threat of violence. Shabalala's brother, and a member of the group, was murdered in 1991, in an allegedly racially motivated killing.

"That was such a terrible time," says Mazibuko. "Joseph stopped singing, at a time when we needed our music more than ever. It seemed that God had turned on us. But it was our faith that brought us back, and our music. We kept going."

Music has been the driving force in many of the Mambazo members' lives. "Music has been my education," Mazibuko says. "When I was growing up, there would have been no way for me to go to school — just not a possibility. But through the music, we were able to travel, and that travel was an education in itself. And it has also paid for me now to put my own children through school, to give them opportunities that were not there for me. Education is very, very important."

But even since the end of apartheid, violence has continued to affect the group. Shabalala's wife was murdered in 2002, and Shabalala himself was injured in the attack. "Those were dark days," says Mazibuko. "Nellie `Shabalala's wife` had been a part of our family for 30 years. We still miss her." But it was their faith in God and in music that brought the choir back together.

"Our faith is very strong," says Mazibuko. Many of the original Mambazo members converted to Christianity in the 1970s, but traditional Zulu worship is still a part of their lives. "For me," says Mazibuko, "our ancestors are important to us, and they are with God. So we honor both."

Part of that honor comes through their music. "Our music is very spiritual for us," says Mazibuko. "The harmonies we sing reflect our traditions and our culture. In some ways, we make it modern and we like to experiment with different artists. But the music still remains a part of our traditional ways.

"I hope we're still singing together 50 years from now," laughs Mazibuko. Although some of the original members are retiring, leader Shabalala shows no signs of slowing down, and the group has a punishing international tour schedule lined up to celebrate their half-century together.

"The music will go on," says Mazibuko. "Our music is about peace and faith, and already the younger generation is picking up on it. We will keep singing. We will keep going. The choir will change, but we will keep going."

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