Isicathamiya means, roughly, "Tip Toe Guys" in Zulu, a major language of South Africa. The genre of music springs from the 19th century, when Zulu people were forced to work as slaves in the South African diamond mines. Taking the vocal harmony concept from their traditional mbube music, they created a style of music and dance that was expressive, yet extremely quiet, so as not to wake their camp night guards.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo Begins:
In the early 1960's, young musician Joseph Shabalala found himself moved by the traditional vocal music of his Zulu roots. He grouped together his brothers, some cousins and a few friends, taught them some of the songs, and began entering vocal group contests.
In the 1970s, Ladysmith Black Mambazo did a radio broadcast, which led to a record deal. The record they made, Amabutho went gold in Africa.... a rare feat. However, they were still completely unknown outside of Africa.
Paul Simon Steps In:
In 1985, anti-apartheid activist Paul Simon decided to make a record featuring some South African music. A friend passed along a bootleg Mambazo tape, and he knew he had found what he was looking for. Thus was born Paul Simon's revolutionary album Graceland. The wild success of that album led to Europe and America's discovery of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo has won 2 Grammy Awards and been nominated for several others. More poignant, however, is that after apartheid fell, Nelson Mandela brought the group along to join him when he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize. The group also performed at his inauguration, when he was made Prime Minister of South Africa. They have also performed for the Pope and the British Royal Family.
The members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo are all born-again Christians. For many people, some of the most exciting parts of their live shows are when the group takes a favorite Christian hymn (such as Amazing Grace) and infuses it with their isicathamiya sound. They also perform traditional Zulu music, both hymns and secular songs.
Shaka Zulu, Warner Bros., 1987; Raise Your Spirit Higher: Wenyukela, Headsup Records, 2004; Long Walk To Freedom, Headsup Records, 2006 (featuring Sarah McLachlan, Melissa Etheridge, Emmylou Harris, Natalie Merchant and more).
The only way to truly experience Ladysmith Black Mambazo is live, but there are a couple of DVDs that will at least let you witness the toe-tapping dance steps that gave their name to the isicathamiya sound: Live at the Royal Albert Hall, Shanachie, 1999; Live at Montreux, Eagle Records, 2005. There is also an Oscar-nominated documentary about the group called On Tip Toe: The Story of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
What's in a Name?:
One of the most frequently asked questions about Ladysmith Black Mambazo is where their name came from. "Ladysmith" is the hometown of group leader Joseph Shabalala. "Black" refers to a black ox, the strongest ox on the farm. "Mambazo" means axe in Zulu and symbolizes the groups ability to "chop down" the competition, musical or political.
If You Like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, You Might Also Like::
- Solomon Linda
- Soweto Gospel Choir
- Rebecca Malope
- Alexandra Youth Choir