If you’re old enough to remember apartheid, then you probably know Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The South African choral group became official musical ambassadors for their country during the 1980s, when their homeland practiced institutionalized racism and segregation.
They entered the American pop culture landscape when guitarist Paul Simon tapped them to appear on his album, “Graceland,” which sold over 14 million copies. Their popularity led to an extensive touring schedule, winning over American audiences with impeccable harmonies, graceful choreography and those infectious smiles.
The group, led by Joseph Shabalala, continues to record, racking up accolades and awards. They received a Grammy nomination for their recent release, “Singing for Peace Around the World.” From his home in South Africa, long time member Albert Mazibuko talks about working with Michael Jackson, his relationship with Nelson Mandela and the next generation of singers.
Your harmonizing and choreography is so tight. How much do you rehearse?
We rehearse from Monday through Thursday. We start at 10 o'clock in the morning and then we end up at 2:30 maybe 3 o’clock. We rehearse all the time. We make sure that what we do be the best.
Why do think Ladysmith Black Mambazo has lasted for so long?
I think it’s a gift that our leader Joseph Shabalala has been given. The message in his music is endless, so we always feel that there is a need to carry on. I think it might be that.
When Paul Simon first reached out to the group, were their any reservations about working with him, because of the politics of the time?
You know, fortunately … we didn’t know about the situation of [politics], it came later. We were just excited that Joseph received a phone call from his home that somebody from America wants to work with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But when we heard who this guy is, then we said, ‘Wow, how we gonna work with this guy?' But after Joseph went to meet him, he says ‘This guy he loves music, he wants to work with us.”
Tell me about when you first met Nelson Mandela.
Wow, that was very exciting. I remember it was July 8 in 1990 -- on his birthday. We were just invited to his birthday party, so we went there to the venue, we sang the first song and the second song and we saw this tall man just stood up and walking straight to the stage. People were running around, some of them trying to stop him to come to us, but he just walk straight to us. And he climbed the stage and he joined us, he’s dancing. After we finished the song, he shook hands with us and he greeted us all. After he shook hands with us, he said something that was remarkable. “Keep up the good job guys, your music has been great inspiration for me while I was in jail.” So that is how we met him for the first time.
Did he inspire you as well?
He inspires us so tremendously because, after we met him for the first time, he went with us many places. I remember that he was going around South Africa, he was always asking us to be there. Every time when he sees us, he would say something in our language that means 'Now we are going to hear the good music.' We went to Moscow when he received his Nobel Peace Prize and we went to visit the King and Queen and England and the Pope of Rome and some other places. So also, he give us the title that we are ambassadors of South African music, so he was a great inspiration.
Did you meet Michael Jackson when you worked on the "Moonwalker" film?Oh yeah! Oh, yeah, yeah, yes. We met him before we shoot the movie. We were already in London and the tour manager at that time he said we got the invitation to visit Michael Jackson. Oh, we were so excited! We were driven to this place and then we went there and we sat down. In about two or three minutes, Michael Jackson walks in with his family and there was some other people following him. He took off his glove and then he shook hands with us and then he gave us a hug, all of us. And he spoke with a very small voice, he said “I love your music very much. I’m honored that you came to meet me today. I’ve got a movie that I want you to make, I was wondering if you would be able to do something with me?” We said, ‘Oh, yes yes yes.” It was wonderful. It was amazing.
We have a place in Virginia called Ladysmith. Did you know that?
Ladysmith in Virginia?
No, I don’t. I only know the town Ladysmith it is somewhere in England. There is one in Virginia too. Wow.
Anything you want to say to your fans?
We are very grateful that people have been supporting us. Right now, Joseph is giving it over to his sons, so we have a new generation. He has trained his sons so well and the music is great. And this tour we have been joined by the grandsons, the third generation, so we are very excited.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo comes to the Carpenter Theater on Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $35-$50. richmondcenterstage.com.