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Remembering Joseph Shabalala, Founder Of Ladysmith Black Mambazo


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Paul Simon's 1986 album, "Graceland," introduced the world to the singing of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. This acapella group was already well-known in its native South Africa for singing both traditional Zulu music and original compositions. The founder and leader of the group was Joseph Shabalala, who died Tuesday at the age of 78. If you ever saw the group in concert or on TV, he was the one wearing the microphone headset.

When he was in his teens, Shabalala left his rural village to find work in the nearby city of Durban. It was there that he started singing in vocal groups with other men who had similarly left their homes to work in the mines and factories. Shabalala's groups used to perform in local music competitions, and they always won. Eventually, they were asked to retire from competition and give other groups a chance. That's when they turned professional.

Terry Gross spoke with Joseph Shabalala in 1991, the year after his group's "Two Worlds, One Heart" album was released. Let's start with a song from that album.


LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: (Singing in non-English language).


TERRY GROSS: Joseph Shabalala, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JOSEPH SHABALALA: Thank you very much.

GROSS: You've traveled such a big distance in your life in terms of meeting different cultures and becoming known around the world. I'm interested in where you started - like, where you lived when you were growing up, what kind of life you had, what kind of work.

SHABALALA: Oh, my God. When you take my mind back like that, I was just on a farm sitting in that hut and then round that fire. I was a herd boy.

GROSS: You were...

SHABALALA: Herd boy - looking after cattle, looking after goats and sheep. Nobody knows that. It's unbelievable to see myself around, including Russia, Japan, New Zealand, Australia. Even my people, even my mother sometimes, she used to cry and said, now you follow your name - because my father gave me a very good name - called Bhekizizwe, which means save the nation. And my mother used to say, now you follow your name. This is something good. It's unbelievable.

GROSS: When you were herding - sheep, was it?

SHABALALA: Yes - sheep, goats and cattle.

GROSS: Did you sing a lot then?

SHABALALA: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes, I - that's where I used to - I feel that I have music because all that time, I just composed a new song and sing and sing. Even the (??) guys - that the guys who were working together with them, they used to say, you have new things all the time. You sing new song. I said, no, it just come - it's spontaneously.

GROSS: Would it be imposing to ask you to maybe sing one - the kind of song you'd sing back then when you were young?

SHABALALA: (Laughter). Let me squeeze my mind back. I remember this song I used to sing for my cousin. Oh, my God - oh, that song - just - and the song says, (singing in non-English language).

And there was another song I used to - just to criticize my cousin. (Singing in non-English language).

That is Zulu dance. I was criticizing my cousin because he was afraid of girls. I said, all the time, when you see girls, you just look down like a bride (ph). What's wrong with you? Yeah, he liked that song. But he said, oh, yeah, you criticize me. But he liked the harmony.

GROSS: I want to play something that one of your groups recorded in 1967, and this is "Umama Lo."

SHABALALA: "Umama Lo."

GROSS: What does "Umama Lo" mean?

SHABALALA: Which means, this is my mother.

GROSS: Let's hear it.


LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: (Singing in non-English language).

GROSS: Joseph Shabalala is my guest, the founder of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

You're known around the world now, and that recognition came at the beginning as a result of the album that you recorded with Paul Simon, the "Graceland" record. How did he find you?

SHABALALA: In fact, Paul Simon, before he left America, he know - he heard about Black Mambazo because when he arrived in Johannesburg, he just named my name. He said, I want to see Joseph Shabalala, the leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I know little bit about Paul Simon, especially the - what to call it? - the show which they did in Central Park with Garfunkel.

GROSS: Oh, right - yeah.

SHABALALA: That one was popular even in South Africa, talking about half a million people who was in there. Some of the press said million of people was in Central Park. And then I used to listen his record from my neighbor called "Bridge Over Troubled Water." And then when I went to him, that was my first time to see him. And then he said to me, Joseph, I'd like to work together with the group. And I ask, him what kind of working? I'm talking about music. I said, oh, you should talk about music to me; that's my life. He's - OK, let's do it.

But that day, I was very hurried because we had a show. And then we talk with him not more than five minutes, and then I arrive to the show. When I came to my group, I told my group that, guys, I was looking Paul Simon straight to his eyes, and I discovered that that man is sent by God to open the gates. I think now this is the time to spread our culture and its tradition. Even themselves, they believe what I say. It takes about - that was February - October. And then October, we got a telex from Paul Simon. He wrote that telex from New York. And he said Black Mambazo, let us come together and practice and record together in London. He sent the demo (ph). He was singing alone. And he was playing and - I think it's an organ. (Singing) homeless, homeless, moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake.

And he was imitating my brother - (vocalizing). And we just laugh. And then he welcomed me to compose - put (ph) Zulu English. And then I composed the song from the beginning, I begin in Zulu, (speaking Zulu), which means, father, we sleep in the cliff. It is very cold in the cliff. Almighty, help us. And then I continue in English - strong wind destroyed our homes. We come together in London. We practice only one day, and then we record. It was wonderful working with a musician. Paul Simon is a musician, pure musician.


LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO AND PAUL SIMON: (Singing in non-English language). (Singing) Homeless, homeless. Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake. Homeless, homeless. Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake. And we are homeless, we are homeless. Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake. And we are homeless - homeless - homeless. Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake. (Singing in non-English language).

GROSS: What were your first impressions the first time you started singing in the United States with Paul Simon? And you're singing in a really different kind of context than you were used to. I don't even know if you had performed with white people in the audience before. Had you?

SHABALALA: Exactly. That was my first time singing for the large audience, those multitudes of people in Holland in that arena for two days. That was February. That was something new in my mind, even to sing for only white people. It was amazing when Paul Simon introduced Black Mambazo. And then we - they welcomed us with their warm hands. At the middle of the song, when we were singing the song "Nomathemba," which means hope - when we sang that song, at the middle of the song, the people were screaming and clapping hands. They encourage us. And then we discover that, oh, the music is a universal language. It knows no boundaries. People have the - what I call the blood (ph). They caught to this - what I call the melody, the harmony. And then we feel at home.


LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: (Singing in non-English language).

PAUL SIMON: (Singing) She's a rich girl. She don't try to hide it - diamonds on the soles of her shoes. He's a poor boy, empty as a pocket.

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO AND PAUL SIMON: (Singing) Empty as a pocket with nothing to lose. Sing ta-na-na (ph), ta-na-na-na. She got diamonds on the soles of her shoes. Awa-awa (ph). Ta-na-na, ta-na-na-na, she got diamonds on the soles of her shoes. Awa-awa. Diamonds on the soles of her shoes. Awa-awa. Diamonds on the soles of her shoes. Awa-awa. Diamonds on the soles of her shoes.

BIANCULLI: We'll hear more of our interview with Joseph Shabalala after a break. Shabalala was the founder and leader of the South African singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. He died Tuesday at the age of 78. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the conversation between Terry Gross and Joseph Shabalala, founder of the South African singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. He died Tuesday at the age of 78. They spoke in 1991.


GROSS: Let me play an example of the kind of singing that you're doing now. This is from your recent record. And this track that we're going to hear was produced by George Clinton, the funk star.


GROSS: And I think it's kind of interesting that a group like yours, which is much more rooted in South African tradition, should have teamed up with one of the fathers of funk, George Clinton. Why did you two come together?

SHABALALA: In fact, I'm a person who like many different things, but I love the way George Clinton put together his music and those noise - (vocalizing). And I said, this guy's like Black Mambazo, and they put their noise in the middle of the song - (vocalizing). I said, no, we must come together and work together. And I first listened his show in Los Angeles. And then after that, I talked to my manager. And then we come together.

GROSS: Do you have very different styles of working?

SHABALALA: Oh, yes. Yes.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SHABALALA: We just put Zulu in that funk.


SHABALALA: Funk and Zulu.

GROSS: Well, let's hear how it sounds. This is from the Ladysmith Black Mambazo record "Two Worlds One Heart." This is the piece "Scatter The Fire."


LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: (Vocalizing). Scatter the fire. Spread the music all over the world.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yo, check this out, man.

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: Yabo (ph), you check this out.

(Singing in non-English language).

GROSS: That's Ladysmith Black Mambazo and a track produced by funkster (ph) George Clinton.

SHABALALA: I love when they - what do they call it? - George Clinton's son says, check this out, man.


GROSS: And you say it, too, after him.

SHABALALA: Yes. I say, you check this out.


GROSS: So how do you like rap? I mean, do...

SHABALALA: I like it very much. In fact, I like all beautiful music. But my favorite is gospel. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. And on this record, too, you sing something with The Winans, the American gospel group...


GROSS: ...The African American gospel group. Did you hear gospel music growing up? What kind of music did you sing in church?

SHABALALA: Oh, my - now, when I grew up on the farm, I don't know nothing about church.

GROSS: But I know you're a minister now, which is why I'm thinking of church.

SHABALALA: (Laughter) Yes, I repent. In fact, I dedicate myself to God. It was 1976, January.

GROSS: I've always heard about you that you're not very political. Is that true?

SHABALALA: Oh, yes. I'm not political. I'm a Christian man, although I point (ph) some other things, which is I just point (ph) - good and bad things, especially how to be good to God, how to praise God, how to respect, how to forgive each other - which I think it covers everything, like pointing (ph) those people who are homeless. It came to the homeless people, and it came to even those people who are with (ph) - but they are homeless because of - we are just visiting here in this world. Our home is in heaven. We are going to see him, before God. We just remind the people their way.

GROSS: Thank you very, very much.

SHABALALA: Thank you so much.

BIANCULLI: Joseph Shabalala spoke to Terry Gross in 1991. The founder of the South African singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo died Tuesday. He was 78 years old.


LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO AND PAUL SIMON: (Singing) Na-na-na-na (ph), na-na-na-na-na. Na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na. Na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na.

BIANCULLI: Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews "And Then We Danced," the controversial film about life and love in the country of Georgia. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUDU PUKWANA & SPEAR'S "CHURCH MOUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.