Joseph Shabalala was written into the song Under African Skies in 1986, when he and his band collaborated with Paul Simon on the album Graceland.
The album went on to be a huge success. It sold more than 16 million copies and it became a cultural icon of the 1980s. For Shabalala and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, it was their big break. They got noticed by other international artists. It would lead to further collaborations with the likes of Dolly Parton, Josh Groban and Emmylou Harris. There were movie soundtracks and even a Heinz beans ad.
Such fame and accomplishment might have changed some men.
But on 11 February as the tributes began to pour in, as the world learnt of Shabalala’s death, one word was used over and over to describe him.
He was humble.
“That’s the word that comes to mind. And you know he, very, very much, in his element with his Zulu roots,” says filmmaker Anant Singh, who used Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s version of Amazing Grace in his movie Cry, the Beloved Country.
Shabalala died on the morning of 11 February 2020 at the Life Eugene Marais Hospital, in Tshwane. His wife Thokozile Shabalala was by his side. He had been ill for some time.
In the US, news of Shabalala’s passing hit the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo particularly hard. The group is touring and was meant to perform at the Freemont Theatre, in San Luis Obispo, California.
Their manager, Xolani Majozi said the group was devastated and they would be cutting their tour short.
Shabalala is credited for introducing not only South Africans, but also the world to isicathamiya music, a capella-style singing that evolved on the mine hostels of Johannesburg. He formed Ladysmith Black Mambazo in the 1960s, when he was still a factory worker.
The story goes that Ladysmith Black Mambazo went through a reformation after Shabalala had a reoccurring dream of the group singing in perfect harmony. He set out to achieve this. At first, the group was unknown outside of their hometown of Ladysmith, but their reputation grew as they continued to win competitions and began to get airplay on SABC.
Then in the mid-1980s, Simon came to South Africa and began working with local artists. It was the heyday of apartheid and both Simon and Shabalala would be accused of breaking the cultural boycott. That collaboration opened up the world of overseas tours and brushes with Hollywood. Nelson Mandela became a big fan.
Shabalala retired from Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 2014 and his sons took over the leadership of the group. Three decades later, and South Africans across political and cultural divides are remembering the man who sang for peace, love and for us all to live in harmony.
“My friend… a giant humble man, Joseph Shabalala, passed away this morning,” tweeted fellow musician Sipho Hotstix Mabuse.
The EFF said in a statement said:
“As its founder, Shabalala led Ladysmith Black Mambazo into prominence, the group has played a significant role in promoting social cohesion through the arts and brought national pride to South Africans by winning various international awards.”
There was even a nod from fast-food giant Nandos. They posted the word “homeless” with the “less” crossed out and “Joseph Shabalala 1941-2020”. Homeless is in reference to the song Ladysmith Black Mambazo is best known for on Graceland.
Others on social media posted videos of Shabalala performing around the world.
“I hope that in his passing that we, as South Africans, recognise the amazing talents that we have in our country, especially, in like, the rural areas,” says filmmaker Singh.
Shabalala stayed true to his roots to the end and the song that was written about him 34 years ago, ended up getting it right too.
“And he walked his day under African skies,” Simon wrote of his friend in that song, Under African Skies. DM
"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule; not to bewail; not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." ~ Baruch Spinoza