"Our aim from the beginning with our music is about uplifting our spirits and the spirits of the people. From the time we formed the group we wanted to encourage people to stay strong and stay positive and that someday things are going to be better," says, longtime Mambazo member Albert Mazibuko, while gazing out his hotel room window at a freshly snow-blanketed Flagstaff, Ariz. during a late-February tour stop.
Staying positive hasn't been easy for the men of Mambazo. For the first three decades of its existence, the group struggled under the racist laws of apartheid and has also suffered tragedies within the choir, including the murders of group and family members. In some respects, it's incredible that Mazibuko and company were able to ever create a musical group under such conditions, let alone one that's become a worldwide phenomenon.
"There were some times in our lives that were unbearable because our country was is in really bad shape at that time," Mazibuko says.
With the group's history in mind, it's nearly baffling that someone like Mazibuko maintains such a positive outlook - he's the type of guy who after a fifteen-minute conversation made me feel inexplicably hopeful about the world. The choir's music, which although sung primarily in a variety of South African languages, is equally soul soothing - much like a good American gospel song. Mambazo's a capella style, called isicathamiya, is a lively and thickly layered culmination of voices that was originated by downtrodden South African mine workers. Despite the fact that there is almost never any instrumentation in a Mambazo track, the choir never comes across as empty or thin.
After more than 40 years of existence, Mambazo is very much alive, touring the world and still pumping out CDs and it's realistic that the group could keep circling the globe for another few decades. Recently, Mambazo founder and musical leader Joseph Shabalala announced that he was going to hang it up and pass the reigns to his son. But Mazibuko says that no longer looks like the case.
"He said 'if you try to leave me behind when you go on tour, when you come back, I will be dead,'" Mazibuko recalls Shabalala saying (and we hope he was exaggerating).
"I think he won't sit down until 10 years from now," Mazibuko continues, "He might only sing two or three songs, but I think he'll always be around when we are out on tour."
In reading the liner notes of Mambazo's new CD, Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu, one will notice that there are only three different last names att ributed to the choir's eight members - displaying the familial nature of the band. By inserting younger family members into the group, Mambazo has created a lineup that's built to last and will maintain its popularity even after Mazibuko and Shabalala, both in their 60s, decide to step down - if the resilient music men ever decide to do so. The group has also created a school in its namesake hometown of Ladysmith, South Africa where students will learn the isicathamiya style that Mambazo has made a career of.
As most can understand, doing anything for 40 or more years can wear one down, which is why, in an effort to re-inspire the group, Mambazo released Ilembe, an album that pays tribute to Shaka Zulu, the legendary warrior credited with uniting the tribes of the Zulu empire. Mambazo's sound hardly brings to mind images of fierce warriors, but Mazibuko says that Shaka Zulu is inspirational on a larger level.
"He was a person who believed in perfection. He reminds us that whatever we're doing we should do it perfectly," Mazibuko says.
Perfection - that's a lofty goal, but if you've been pushing along decade after decade, releasing more than 50 records along the way like Ladysmith Black Mambazo has, maybe perfection is the only thing left.
7pm Tuesday, March 4. Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St., 317-0700. $50/premier, $37/prime, $27/patron. Tickets available at Tower box office or by visiting www.towertheatre.org.