In 1987, Ladysmith Black Mambazo released an album, Shaka Zulu, named after the 19th-century founder of the Zulu empire. The record was both the group's proper international debut (it was produced by Paul Simon, who worked with Mambazo for his Graceland album) and a celebration of the South African male vocal group's long and impressive career. Shaka Zulu shimmers with the swelling dynamics and exquisitely balanced harmonies of the isicathamiya choral tradition Mambazo helped popularize. It's also a quiet but powerful plea for justice recorded under South Africa's apartheid system.
The album's combination of graceful harmonies and hopeful messages helped make Mambazo icons of the antiapartheid movement and musical ambassadors of a South Africa to come. In some ways, Shaka Zulu was an odd source of inspiration. A warlord whose military prowess and weaponry innovations helped him conquer his enemies (including white colonialists), Shaka absorbed the tribes of southern Africa into a mighty empire through a series of bloody battles. He has long been an important icon for South Africa's black population, a symbol of their role in the country's founding and their historical resistance to their oppressors. As the antiapartheid movement gained ground, Mambazo paired its appeals for peace with this emblem of power and strength.
Now, more than 20 years later, the group has released another album named for the revered leader, Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu. Ilembe is vintage Mambazo: In interlocking a cappella harmonies, the singers move as one through the shifting meters of "Hlala Nami," their unity broken only by the purring melismas and jubilant exclamations of their signature vocal accents. Leader Joseph Shabalala, who founded the group in the early 1960s, wields his gentle tenor like an iron fist, his rhapsodic calls governing the ebb and flow of the chorus' response on tracks like "Iphel' Emansini." On "Kuyafundw' Osizini (Ilembe)," the singers repeat the same phrase over and over, gradually adding layers of sound and subtly intensifying the dynamics as the song marches forward.
"Kuyafundw'," which translates as "Learning from the Obstacles," sums up the philosophy of both Ilembe and most of Mambazo's oeuvre. "We said, anything in front of you is a stepping stone," says Albert Mazibuko, Shabalala's cousin and a founding member of the group. "If there's someone trying to stop you, that's when you will become strong."
That message was particularly inspirational during the apartheid era, rendering the group's music a symbol of the resiliency and vibrancy of black South African culture. Since apartheid ended, however, the AIDS pandemic has ravaged the black population, and the country's wealth distribution remains grossly uneven, perpetuating an economic apartheid that often boils over in violence (the Human Sciences Research Council estimates that the poorest households have actually become poorer since the early 1990s). Many South Africans are angry about their government's failure to remedy these problems.
Mambazo itself is no stranger to tragedy: A white gunman killed two members of the group in 1991, and Shabalala's wife was murdered by a masked shooter outside their church in 2002. Two decades after its first album was dedicated to Shaka Zulu, the group's work is not yet finished. "We said, let's remind people there's someone who united people from the different Zulu tribes," Mazibuko says. "And that energy, that idea, it still can work even now." Shaka is a problematic icon, but his complex legacy of violence and strength, conquest and pride, serves as a reminder that the battle to effect change and foster hope, on either a personal or political level, is never simple. Like Ladysmith Black Mambazo's intricate harmonies, it is a delicate balancing act.