With its unmistakable sound and distinctive rhythm, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been the soundtrack of South Africa for decades.
As the country’s most well-known singing group and one of the most famous all-male ensembles on the globe, the group has sung for presidents and pop stars, and won Grammy Awards and adoration throughout its six decades of making music. But through the years, the group’s simple message has remained steadfast.
“It is a message of peace and encouragement to do the right thing,” said Albert Mazibuko, one of two original members with the group today. “We try to inspire people to live positive lives and believe in themselves. We are trying to make this world we are living in a better place.”
The group will perform Thursday at the Art Kamangar Center at the Merced Theatre. The community event is sponsored by Arts UC Merced Presents at the University of California at Merced.
First formed in 1960 by founder Joseph Shabalala as Ezimnyama, the group changed its name to Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 1964 and began a storied recording and performing career. In 1986, the group leapfrogged into international superstardom when it was featured on Paul Simon’s Grammy-winning album “Graceland.”
The troupe has remained an international symbol of South African strength and resilience over the years. Just last month, members took home their fourth Grammy, for the release “Live: Singing for Peace Around the World.” Mazibuko said the group was honored to receive the recognition for best world album.
“This is a great inspiration for us as a group, that what we do is appreciated,” he said. “It makes us very humbled and say (to ourselves), ‘Let’s carry on with what we are doing.’ ”
The album was dedicated to the group’s longtime friend and fan the late South African President Nelson Mandela. The group met Mandela in 1990 after the anti-apartheid leader was released from 27 years of imprisonment. He told members he listened to their music while in prison, and it inspired him.
“We just said, ‘Wow!’ After that, he never let us go,” Mazibuko said. “We went with him. Even went to Oslo with him when he received his Nobel Prize (in 1993). He requested we sing at the ceremony, which is very rare. And he chose the songs. And at his inauguration (as South African president in 1994), he requested we sit where he was sitting. That was a great honor. Lastly, he gave us the title as the ambassadors of South African music.”
After Mandela’s death in December, Ladysmith Black Mambazo performed at the world leader’s memorial service.
Last month, members released their latest album, this one also dedicated to one of their longtime inspirations. The project, titled “Always With Us,” is in memory of Nellie Shabalala, band leader Joseph Shabalala’s wife, who was shot and killed by a masked gunman outside her home in 2002. Over her 30 years with her husband, Nellie Shabalala became a group matriarch. She also formed her own female singing ensemble, Women of Mambazo.
The new record features Nellie Shabalala’s singing, which had been recorded for a future Women of Mambazo project, interlaced with Ladysmith Black Mambazo vocals.
“She was a very important person in our career,” Mazibuko said. “She is one of the people there on our ups and downs. She has been the mother of our group. After she passed away, it was a tragedy. We were very, very sad. But she will never leave our hearts and our minds.”
Mazibuko and founder Shabalala are the two remaining original members of the choral group. The tradition has been passed to the next generation, with four of Shabalala’s sons and one grandson joining the group on the road. This will be the first time the senior Shabalala will miss a tour, as the 73-year-old is still recovering from surgery he underwent late last year.
At 65, Mazibuko is now the senior member of the group on tour. The youngest is Shabalala’s 27-year-old grandson.
“We are so grateful we have been joined by the young. We have all these generations, which tells us the group will be around forever,” Mazibuko said. “It is so wonderful to work with young people if you are old. You learn a lot from them. They also keep you on your toes. We were worried that with Joseph not around, things might change. But instead, they have gotten more mature. We respect one another and we respect our work and dedicate ourselves even more.”