- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2008

During apartheid, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s a cappella melodies fed fellow black South Africans a hearty blend of hope, strength and inspiration. Even future president Nelson Mandela felt the group’s stirring songs touch his spirit through the jail bars that held him. (He would later become a great friend of the band.)

Although those dark days of systematic segregation are over, the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo still feel they have much work to do and many people to reach with their positive message.

Just look at the recent spate of xenophobic violence in the group’s homeland, says longtime member Albert Mazibuko.

The singer and the rest of the group performed last weekend at an Africa Day celebration concert in Johannesburg, preaching their musical gospel to those in attendance.

“We were singing all our songs asking people to stop this [violence] and work with others in a peaceful way,” Mr. Mazibuko says. “That’s a great challenge that we’ve got now.”

But can music really effect change in this way?

Of course, says Mr. Mazibuko - especially in his homeland. In South Africa, “music is not just a music for entertainment. The music, it does everything.”

The performer, who will turn 60 on Sunday, recalls that during his childhood growing up on a farm, songs were mighty powerful - almost like a magical force field.

“After [my brother and I] had taken care of the cattle and put them in their place, we’d have to walk home, which was about five miles away, so we were always walking in the night, in the dark. So in order for us to not be afraid, we sang. We sang all the way until we got home. So the music, it makes you feel bigger. You feel not afraid of anything. You feel that you have the power to do anything.”

Well, maybe not anything, Mr. Mazibuko admits. The singer explains that when he was younger, he never thought he would get to be a full-time musician because it simply wasn’t done at that time in his culture.

“Music was only something people did at marriages or events,” he says.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo broke through this and other daunting barriers.

Mr. Mazibuko’s cousin Joseph Shabalala formed the group in 1960 under a different name. Four years later, the act took on its current moniker and aesthetic after the founder literally dreamed up a new twist on the Zulu singing style isicathamiya.

With “Amabutho,” its 1973 debut album, the group became the first black act to have a gold record in South Africa, and somehow, the musicians managed to charm their way into traveling without government permission, which was forbidden under apartheid.

When renowned musician Paul Simon collaborated with the group on his 1986 album “Graceland,” he introduced Ladysmith Black Mambazo to a worldwide audience and gave the singers a platform from which they could sing out their experiences of apartheid.

In its expansive career, the ensemble has sold millions of records, won two Grammy Awards, toured and recorded with artists ranging from Taj Mahal to Stevie Wonder and managed to turn even a Life Savers commercial into a transformative experience.

Getting the opportunity to pay the bills through music, Mr. Mazibuko says, “is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” (He would have continued working as a mechanic had the singing gig not panned out, he says.)

What’s the best thing that’s ever happened to the group as a whole? Nelson Mandela inviting the musicians to accompany him and perform at his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo.

“It was the highlight of our career,” Mr. Mazibuko says. “I even remember the songs we sang.”

Though that performance is nearly impossible to top, the singer says touring remains a thrill - even when it means being away from his wife and college-age children for as many as seven months a year.

“It’s exciting to be around the world, to see other people and perform,” he says. “Every time going to a performance, I just want to see how it will be. We have something to look forward to all the time. It makes you forget that you are away.”

Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs Sunday at 8 p.m. at the sold-out “A World of Voices” concert, hosted by Bobby McFerrin. The show is part of the Kennedy Center’s A Cappella: Singing Solo festival (www.kennedy-center.org), which runs through June 6.

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