MAMBAZO'S VOICES OPENED DOORS: SOUTH AFRICAN BAND VISITING NAPA'S UPTOWN THEATER
Whenever the South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo sang, they moved audiences with their intricate rhythms and uplifting harmonies. There was just one problem as the group gained fame in their homeland: They couldn't easily move around the country to perform for their ever-growing legion of fans.
The time was the 1970s and early '80s and the apartheid apparatus still firmly controlled South Africa.
"Every time we traveled, we were stopped by police," said Albert Mazibuko, a founding member of the group, in a telephone interview.
"We tried to explain what we were doing, but they couldn't understand. So we just started to sing for them. It worked all the time."
Since Ladysmith Black Mambazo formed in 1969, their singing has opened doors for them around the world.
The group became internationally known in 1986 when they collaborated with singer-songwriter Paul Simon on his "Graceland" album. Songs such as "Homeless" and "Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes" were enriched by Mambazo's warm, embracing vocals.
"Graceland" won a Grammy, but Simon was criticized -- some said he exploited Mambazo's talents and should have given them co-credit for the album. Mambazo's members, however, were thrilled to work with him.
"For us it was a dream come true, and we benefit a lot from joining Paul Simon," Mazibuko said. "We had something beautiful, and we wanted to share that with the world. Because of him, now everyone knows about Ladysmith Black Mambazo."
Mambazo's music, a hybrid of Zulu harmonies and gospel stylings, came to the group's founder, Albert Shabalala, in a series of dreams in 1964.
"In the dreams, he heard the blending of voices and saw how to put the singing together with the dancing," Mazibuko said. The musical style is called Isicathamiya, a Zulu word meaning a harmonious blend of voices.
In the mid-1960s, Shabalala was in a singing group in Durban, but they couldn't realize the music he heard in his dream. So he invited his brother, his cousin Mazibuko and others to sing with him.
Mambazo's music is spiritual, says Shabalala, 71, on the group's web site, but not specific to any religion: The songs "evoke enthusiasm and excitement, regardless of what you follow spiritually."
Where does the group's name come from? Ladysmith is Shabalala's home town, Black is a reference to the black ox which is known for its strength, and Mambazo is the Zulu word for axe, a symbol of the group's ability to defeat rivals in singing competitions.
Mambazo's most recent album, last year's "Songs From a Zulu Farm," brings to life the music of the band members' pastoral childhood. Nominated for a Grammy this year, the album is ideal for kids, but the songs appeal to adults, too.
"This is a very happy album," Mazibuko said. "It brings a lot of joy because when you are a child you ... just see the world with eyes of beauty. It shows the power of music, what the music was doing to us even when we were little kids. We want to wake up the children inside us."
One song on the album didn't come from the Zulu tradition. When Mambazo recorded the album, they asked about American farm songs. Their grandsons knew "Old McDonald," and the band translated the song into the Zulu language.
"People love it," Mazibuko, 63, said, because it takes them back to the joy of their childhoods.
Looking back on the band's miraculous career, Mazibuko said the highlight was meeting and performing for their hero, Nelson Mandela, past president of South Africa and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-apartheid work. Shortly after Mandela was released from prison, Mambazo was asked to perform at a party in 1990 for the country's future elected leader.
"The second song he stood up, he walked to us, and then danced with us," Mazibuko recalled. "When we finished the song he shook our hands. Then he said something that was wonderful: 'Your music has been a great inspiration to me when I was in jail.' "
Ultimately, Ladysmith Black Mambazo's mission is to spread the gospel of "peace, love and harmony" through music, Mazibuko said. "We want people to see the beauty of this world and make it a better place to live."
Michael Shapiro writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. Follow him via www. michaelshapiro.net.