"I have been around the world. In these travels I discovered that the Lord is the Light and the Truth. This truth prevails in heaven as well as my home."
— Joseph Shabalala, concerning the song "Uqinisil' Ubada"
Chances are you've heard the sweet harmonies—or else the musical influence—of Ladysmith Black Mambazo at some point, especially with the integration of African music into pop culture over the last twenty years. The acclaimed vocal group is best known for their contributions to Paul Simon's highly acclaimed Graceland album in 1986. Since then, they've recorded with Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, The Corrs, Ben Harper, and have been featured on numerous film soundtracks. In 2000, they teamed with Charlie Peacock for the Roaring Lambs Bob Briner tribute album, recording "'Akehlulek' Ubaba," a song about the fruits of the Spirit.
Joseph Shabalala was a young South African farm boy turned factory worker when he first started the ten–man a cappella group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, in the early 1960s. Ladysmith is the name of his hometown, Black refers to oxen (the strongest work animals on the farm), and Mambazo is the Zulu word for axe, which symbolizes the group's ability to "chop down any singing rival who might challenge them." Indeed, their skills are so strong that they dominated competitions for years—to the point where they were banned from participating. A radio broadcast in 1970 led to Ladysmith's first recording contract, and they've recorded more than forty albums in subsequent years.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo has often been praised for carrying on their native musical traditions and credited as one of the pivotal groups to introduce world music to Western culture, yet too often people forget they often do this with stylistic integration of gospel sounds and lyrics. Their music borrows heavily from a South African style called isicathamiya (is–cot–a–ME–Ya), which is similar in many ways to the spirituals sung by American slaves in the 19th century. Shabalala's conversion to Christianity in the '60s also helped define the group's direction, claiming that part of Ladysmith's mission is "to bring this gospel of loving one another all over the world." However, he does backpedal slightly in explaining the group's widespread appeal: "Without hearing the lyrics, this music gets into the blood, because it comes from the blood…. It evokes enthusiasm and excitement, regardless of what you follow spiritually."
Nevertheless, Shabalala's faith is very much present on Wenyukela (Raise Your Spirit Higher), Ladysmith's first album in five years. At least I'm trusting it is, since I don't understand Zulu and the CD fails to include lyrics and translations, though there are song explanations by Shabalala. The title track is about Jesus rising from the grave, and that is somehow tied in to perseverance amid hardship. "Wangibambezela" tells of a young man facing a spiritual crisis. "Uqinisil' Ubada (Lord Is the Light and Truth)" is Shabalala's straightforward spiritual testimony (see his words above), and "Udidekil' Umhlaba (Lord's Work)" is about his commitment to serving God through music.
Much of Ladysmith's music is born out of hardship, which isn't surprising considering they've survived in an environment of apartheid all these years, but these struggles run much deeper. Shabalala's wife of 30 years was shot and killed outside of their church in 2002. Then in June of 2004, his brother Ben—a longtime member of the group—was similarly murdered. Yet Shabalala's faith remains unshaken. Speaking about his wife's death, he says, "At the time that this happened, I tried to take my mind deep into the spirit, because I know the truth is there. In my flesh, I might be angry, I might cry, I might suspect somebody. But when I took my mind into the spirit, the spirit told me to be calm and not to worry. Bad things happen, and the only thing to do is to raise your spirit higher." That Ladysmith Black Mambazo can similarly raise our spirits despite the language barrier is testimony to the joyful noise that is their musical legacy.
Unless specified clearly, we are not implying whether this artist is or is not a Christian. The views expressed are simply the author's. For a more complete description of our Glimpses of God articles, click here.