Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Albert Mazibuko, a founding member of celebrated South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, about how he idolized Joseph Shabalala's prowess as a stick fighter, how they audition new members and what he thinks about before going to sleep every night.
CP: You're about two and a half weeks into your current tour. How is it going, so far?
AM: It's going wonderfully. This is our fourth week now. We just finished three weeks on Friday. We have been Colorado, Kentucky, Ohio, Chicago, Texas. We have been in many places.
CP: Do you have a particular fondness for touring in America?
AM: I like American tours, especially in the winter. There are a few things I like about the winter. You have a lot of energy when it's cold, and the vocal chords are very good to you when it's cold as opposed to when it's hot. My performance and my singing is very enjoyable when it's wintertime. What I enjoy more about the American tours is that they have a very developed way of traveling. You can travel fast and sleep or eat. It's amazing.
CP: Did you grow up singing in the isicathamiya (is-cot-a-ME-ya) style or was it something you learned after joining Ladysmith?
AM: It's something that has been sung in my area when I was growing up, but I was exposed to the music for the first time by grandmother. She was isango - mother divine - those people ... maybe we can call them fortune tellers. I grew up with her. These people have to sing every night before they go to sleep, so I was introduced to the music by her because we were always singing in the evening and doing drum and dancing.
I fell in love with that and started to entertain the family at gatherings. When I was six or somewhere in there, I used to start a song and sing, and they would clap for me and do the dance.
I remember one of my uncles was not a happy person, and he said, "No, you are too precocious. Sit down." I was a little disappointed, but the next morning, my grandfather said, "Don't mind him. You've got a talent. Do what you always want to do."
Even my uncles and my father and their friends were singing it.
When I was nine years old, I formed my own group. The youngest in my group was seven years old, and the oldest was 14 years old. They had competitions every month, and my group entered those competitions, and we began to win. I saw Joseph [Shabalala] in 1960 with his group, and they sang so beautiful. My group was the best in the area, but when I saw Joseph with his group, I said to my group, "Let's forget about singing now. When I grow up, I will go to join him." It was my dream in 1960.
CP: What was it about his style of singing that struck you early on? What made it so beautiful?
AM: His singing was more relaxed and ... so perfect. That was something I noticed because I was striving for my group to sing better than other groups. But when I saw his group, they sang the song in a way that was so relaxed and so beautiful. I had never heard anything like that.
He has been my hero because he was also leading the singing in marriages, and then he was famous with the stick fighting with the women. He was a very famous guy. He was my hero, so when I saw him singing, I said, "This is the kind of singing I'm looking for." So I said when I grew up I would go and join him. I don't know how that happened, but it happened nine years later. [Laughs.]
CP: Did you seek him out and audition to join his group? How did you end up joining up with him?
AM: For me, it was luck because Joseph had a group at the time. We tried to join his group - me and my brother [Milton] - in 1967, but the other members said there were too many and they didn't need us. But Joseph was so polite that he auditioned us. He sang a song everyone knows, and we sang it with him. He said, "OK, come back for rehearsal," but we never went back because we felt that the other members didn't like us.
In 1969, he came to us. I was with my brother and one of my cousins, and he was with his brother. When he came, he came in midmorning. It was Sunday. I'll never forget. It was in October, and he said, "I'm here because I had a dream that my grandmother told me that you are the people who are going to help me achieve my dream." His grandmother is my grandfather's sister because our grandfather's swapped sisters.
We were so excited and said, "This is our time," but he said, "I'm not looking for the singing you're familiar with. I have something new. I have learned a new way of singing and blending the voices and a new technique for developing this kind of music."
We were listening and asked if he went to school somewhere, and he said, "No, I learned it from the dream. Every time I go to sleep, there are people who are singing for me, and I learn a lot from them. When I tried to teach this to my group, they said it was too difficult, so I left them."
It sounded so challenging, but we said, "We're here. If you are going to be patient with us and teach us what you want us to do, we are here for you." That day, he taught us a new song I'd never heard in any way. We slowly sang that song until the sun set, and from there, we never stropped.
CP: When you first heard this new approach, did you see it becoming so popular as it has become?
AM: You know, I only had the belief that what he had was something very unique. If we could be able to master it or grab it in the way he wanted, it would take us far away. That's the thought and the belief I had at that time because when I heard him just singing the song the first time and teaching us, I thought that if we could learn to do this in the right way, it would take us away. It has. [Laughs.]
CP: How much of a role did being family members play in your development as a band early on?
AM: It's very important because Joseph is our older brother; that's what we call him. We respect him. In our culture, the person who is older than you is your leader. You listen to him, he's your mentor and you learn everything from him. It's very important because we have somebody we know. We believe that he cannot lead us in the wrong way, so whatever he says or wants us to do, we believe it's the right thing to do. That's important.
When you're a family, it helps when you're singing with the voices because it's easy to blend the voices because the tone of your voices have a similarity. It helps a lot. It also helps when we're on tour because it feels like we're a family even when we're not at home.
CP: What does it take to be a member of Ladysmith? How do you make sure new members live up to the band's legacy?
AM: Right now, we don't do auditions. All the people who want to sing with Mambazo we tell to come to rehearsals and sing with us. That's all it takes. When you come to rehearse with us, we learn about your lifestyle. We learn if you're a disciplined persona and can show respect and if you're punctual.
We want someone who can keep the time and be respectful and a person who is willing to learn whatever we are teaching because our teaching changes all the time. We need someone who is dedicated and patient and someone who has a lot of respect. That's how the members get into Mambazo.
Right now, we're so fortunate that Joseph's sons are in the group because they grew up with Joseph, so whenever Joseph writes a song, they were the ones that he used to learn the song before Mambazo learns the song, so he would sing the song with them. They have what it takes to be Mambazo members. That's how they got in the group.
The last member we got in the group, he learned the way I was explaining, by coming to practice with us. We said, "This guy is a young person, but he's disciplined and focused." So when we needed another member, we said, "Come join us." He's Mfana Futi. He joined, I believe, four years ago.
CP: In the last several decades, the lineup for Ladysmith has seen a lot of turnover with new members. What's kept you in the group for so long?
AM: I think about that all the time, also, but I think it's a vow that I made to myself before I even joined back in 1960, when I saw Joseph and his group. When that opportunity came to me, I said, "I have been waiting for this." I have nothing else I like to do in my life.
I want to sing with this group and make it better and do whatever it takes to be a member of this group because I never think of anything else. It's my life. Whenever I go to sleep, it's my last thought in my mind, and when I wake up in the morning, it's the first thing in my mind.
CP: Part of your goal as a band is to educate people about South African culture. Now that Ladysmith has been together almost 40 years, do you feel like you've made a difference in expanding people's awareness about your country and traditions?
AM: Yes, we have. I believe we have because many people that I met said they felt what our music has done to them. Our mission is to try to make people live positive lives and see life as a beauty and a gift and to try and make the world we live in a beautiful place. When I talk to people, they mention that a lot, so I say, "This is great. This is wonderful."
CP: How do people get that message? Is it how you present yourself on stage? The way you live your lives? The music itself?
AM: I think it's the harmony, the harmony we have. It's a unique harmony because when we blend our voices, before even we convey the message - we mostly sing in our language, and some people don't understand - but the sound that we have has its own way to talk to people. The sound is most important in our music.
CP: Is that why other African vocal groups like Soweto Gospel Choir are able to break into the international market? What is at the root of this music's appeal to international audiences?
AM: Most of those young groups you mentioned from South Africa have been influenced by Ladysmith Black Mambazo music. That's where they learn to blend their voices and make it sound the way they want it to sound before they tell their story.
I think it's also in our country. People there are so talented when it comes to harmonies. When we sing, we say we want each and everyone who listens to our music not to try and imitate us but to awaken something everyone has inside himself or herself. When you can awaken that talent inside you, you can do something, I think. That's what our music does to people.
CP: When you look at those other groups that you've influenced, do you see that as a sign of your own success?
AM: It is, yes. We are very satisfied with that, although we still want to see a real school where people can go and learn all about indigenous South African music. At the movement, we call ourselves a moving academy because everywhere we go, we inspire people to try to awaken their talent inside themselves
CP: Are you working on any other recordings?
AM: Yes, we are. We're working on something new, but we don't want to expose it right now. We are experimenting to try to sing all the other beautiful music that people have forgotten about, especially the gospel music.
We are tying to get the music that has been sung at home recorded. Music changes all the time - American gospel and whatever. We have been experimenting with that and have recorded some demos, and it sounds wonderful, but it will take a lot of effort to make it work.
It's something we wanted to do. We've wanted to do this music that people have almost forgotten about and sing it and record it so people can access it when they want to.
CP: How much time do you split between touring and working in the studio?
AM: Every time when we're not on tour, when we go back home, we have no time to rest when we're back home. If we arrive home, we have a day or two days, so we get together and we work. That's what we do all the time because we feel that we should keep going. That will keep us young and active.
CP: How old are you?
AM: I'm 63. [Laughs.]
CP: Do you look forward to getting to go home or do you prefer to be on the road?
AM: When I'm at home, I'm always looking forward to being on the road. There's something I miss about being on the road. Although when I'm at home, I always miss being at home and being with my family, my grandchildren. It's wonderful to be home. There are two lives, which makes life exciting, because when I'm at home, I miss being on the road, and when I'm on the road, I miss being home. I enjoy both those lives.