Ladysmith Black Mambazo founder Joseph Shabalala dies aged 78

Joseph Shabalala, best known for founding and directing the world-famous South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and came to Western fame for its work on Paul Simon’s Graceland album, died on Tuesday at the age of 78.

The musician, who also was famous in the 1990’s Heinz beans adverts, died in a hospital in Pretoria, the South Africa Government confirmed the sad news in a condolence tweet.

Shabalala and the Ladysmith Black Mambazo

“We would like to extend our condolences on the passing of Joseph Shabalala, who was the founder of the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. “Ulale ngoxolo Tata ugqatso lwakho ulufezile.” (Rest in peace, father, your race is complete).

Joseph, who was born Bhekizizwe Joseph Siphatimandla Mxoveni Mshengu Bigboy Shabalala, started Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 1959, and went on to win multiple awards with them.

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Ladysmith Black Mambazo found global fame in 1986 with Paul Simon’s Graceland album. When Joseph met Paul, they hugged — the first white man he had ever embraced.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo won five Grammy awards and featured heavily on Paul Simon’s Gracelands album.

They also reached number 15 in the UK charts with a cover of Swing Low Sweet Chariot, for the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

With Paul Simon

Ladysmith Black Mambazo became a mobile academy of South African cultural heritage through their African indigenous isicathamiya (traditional music of the Zulu people).

Shabalala formed the group because of a series of dreams he had in 1964, in which he heard certain  isicathamiya harmonies and following their local success at wedding ceremonies and other gatherings, Shabalala entered them into isicathamiya competitions. 

The group was described as ‘so good’ that they were eventually forbidden to enter the competitions, but welcomed to entertain at them.

Although they had been recognised as an isicathamiya group in 1964, they had been singing together since the early 1950s. 

They released their first album, Amabutho, in 1973. The album, along with many other releases by the group, received gold disc certification.

The singer retired from active performance in 2014, but his sons continue his legacy as performers with Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

In his retirement statement, Shabalala had said: “In the early 1960s, I had a dream of a type of singing group that I wanted to create. 

“Not just a dream, in the wishful way, but an actual dream while I was asleep. This beautiful dream led to the creation of my group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. 

“Now, some 45-plus years later this original dream has led to so many more dreams. We have been awarded Grammy Awards, represented our homeland of South Africa at many prestigious events, including accompanying Nelson Mandela to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

With Nelson Mandela

“We traveled the world so many times and most importantly, spread a message of Peace, Love and Harmony to millions of people.

“This was never a dream a black South African could ever imagine.

As the years have passed, and the 20th century became the 21st, I started to get asked what will happen to Ladysmith Black Mambazo once I retired, if I ever retired.

“Well, I have spent much time thinking about this. Ladysmith Black Mambazo was never about one person. Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a mission. A mission to spread our message and to keep our culture alive and known. 

“South Africa is a most wonderful place, filled with beautiful people. By touring, as we have, almost seven months every year for over 20 years, we have wanted to keep South Africa alive in people’s hearts.

“Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a family. Within the group I have had brothers and cousins singing together. Over the past 15 years, because of retirements and death, I have been joined by four of my sons. 

“They are the future of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, our next generation. The mission and message will continue. When the time comes for me to finish touring and to stay home they will carry on my dream. 

“As well, my son Thamsanqa (Tommy) will become the new leader of the group. Thus, the dream I had over 45 years ago will continue well into the 21st century. 

“Ladysmith Black Mambazo must continue as the message of Peace, Love and Harmony never must be silenced. We never will be silenced and we hope our fans and friends around the world will keep wanting to hear this message.

“Ngiyabonga! Thank you!”