From farm labourer to Grammy king

Joseph Shabalala. Pictures: Zama Nteyi.

From performing before a handful of farm labourers in Ladysmith, to entertaining heads of state and royalty from across the globe, Joseph Shabalala, leader of the acclaimed Ladysmith Black Mambazo, had to navigate a minefield of obstacles.

The band receiving a fourth Grammy in Los Angeles in the US recently, is the latest in a string of accolades for this humble artist whom South Africans have come to love.

But the King of a Cappella has come a long way … he sits on a couch, chatting on the phone in his palatial house in the leafy suburb of Kloof, near Pinetown in Durban.

He signals to me to take a seat.

I’m still surveying the dozens of trophies on display when the award-winning singer, composer and teacher tells the caller: “I have to go now. I have visitor.”

“It’s one of the journalists from a radio station,” he says as he offers me a firm handshake.

“For more than fifty years I have been going to radio and television stations for interviews, adverts and a host of other things – now it’s my time to relax – and anyone who wants me should come to the house,” the 72-year-artist says.

When I asked Shabalala – the father of eight and husband to “my beautiful wife, Thoko” – how many awards he has won in his career, he glances at his spokesperson, Romeo Qetsimani – and when no assistance was forthcoming, he starts counting all the awards on display.

“Of course, the other Grammy is not here as yet. But they are not mine; they belong to all the Mambazo members – including those who have passed on,” he says.

The phone rings again – another journalist; this time from a radio station in the US. “Yes, it’s me, but can you call me in thirty minutes, I’m busy talking to someone like you,” he says.

But behind the glittering array of trophies, the media spotlight and all the glamour of a life of a music star, there is an inspiring story – a story set in humble beginnings.

“When I was a young boy I dreamt of becoming an educated person; maybe a teacher, doctor or something like that,” he says. That dream was quickly snatched away as the young Shabalala was forced to quit school at the tender age of twelve to start working on the farm – Tugela, on the outskirts of Ladysmith.

“When my father passed away, I had to take up his position at the farm – otherwise my family would have been kicked out,” he says.

Ironically, what was supposedly the most tragic phase of his life became a time of excitement and fun.

“At work, we would sing; weekends, we would sing.”

However, after performing at several weddings and traditional ceremonies, the ritual soon become boring to Shabalala. “The songs were always the same. I just felt there was something missing,” he remembers.

The urge to infuse dynamics and fun into the local Isichathamiya music unlocked Shabalala’s talent as a composer of note.

“The songs I composed were mostly about life on the farm; people falling in love; losing their loved ones and toiling in the scorching sun.”

Joseph Shabalala. Picture: Zama Nteyi

Joseph Shabalala. Picture: Zama Nteyi

Shabalala roped in his brothers, cousins and a few friends and taught them the “brand new” songs.

The grouping, which later gave birth to what is now the most successful Isichathamiya group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, went on to win each and every singing contest in the area.

“Initially, we went by the name Ezimnyama (The black ones). Those days prizes where in the form of goats, chicken and so on – monetary prizes were very rare,” he says.

With the responsibility to support his mother, Nomandla, and six siblings squarely on his shoulders, Shabalala was forced to leave the farm and head for the city lights of Durban, where he worked as a motor mechanic assistant during the day and a performer at night.

“Initially, township people used to dismiss our music as that of amaqaba (backwards people) but later they fell in love with our voices,” he says.

PARTNERS. Joseph Shabalala and his wife, Thoko.

PARTNERS. Joseph Shabalala and his wife, Thoko.

Their talent did not go unnoticed. In 1968, producers from Radio Zulu, now Ukhozi fm, invited the group to the Durban studios, where their music was recorded for the first time. A record deal with Gallo Music followed in 1972 – and the group’s first album sold over 40 000 copies.

Five decades later, the group had performed in some of the top venues around the world, bagging four Grammys and several other awards.

Shabalala recently announced his retirement – but says simply: “I have not completely retired: I coach youngsters. This way, Isichatamiya music and the Mambazo legacy will live on.”



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