Dimitrios Kambouris, Getty Images Move out of the way because Beyonce is playing…
- Posted on Jan 11th 2011 2:30PM by Steve Hochman
"It was a challenging life," he says by phone from his home in Pietermaritzburg, a few hours and a few worlds from his childhood home. "I cannot call it a hard life – even now I see people who really have a hard life. It was very challenging, but now I say it makes us strong."
Singing, too, was a big part of that. Many of his childhood recollections revolve around songs used in games or with moral lessons or that accompanied the work he was doing in the farm fields starting at a very young age.
"The music played a very important role," Mazibuko says. "It gave us hope and also it was comforting. When things don't go the way you like, it was only way I could create my own world that I lived in happy. It was filling the void, filling inside myself. When I sing, it makes everything right."
And the memories come flooding back. One key memory is of the song 'Uthekwane,' telling the story of a narcissistic bird. It's one of the songs featured on 'Songs From a Zulu Farm,' the new album by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, due for release Feb. 1. Mazibuko has been a member of the essential South African vocal group since 1969, five years after it was formed in a nearby community by Joseph Shabalala – the two of them the only remaining members from those formative years.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo, 'Uthekwane'
"I certainly remember the song from when I was in the farm where I grew up," he says. "I think I was about 5. The song is about a bird. It only wants to play with its reflection in the water. In the song we say that this bird thinks she's beautiful; that's why she's always looking. But she's always complaining about it. It said, 'I can go somewhere else and build my beautiful house and stay there. It feels like the other birds are laughing at me.'"
And the meaning?
"The lesson is that you don't need to get approval from the other people," he says. "You should be satisfied whatever you are and whatever you do. You yourself should be satisfied and tell yourself that whatever I do is the best. It was a very important lesson. Because when you grow up, we have things we call – I don't know the English word, something that other people growing up in the area I grew up knew. People were not encouraging other people. But the way of encouragement was to criticize whatever you do. When they criticize they make you want to do the best. But other people, it can destroy them. But you have to understand that when people criticize, they want to make me a better person."
The new album, perhaps more than any other of the group's prolific career, takes a truly personal journey to the origins of its signature sounds and cultural impetus, and stands both as a complement and contrast in cultural pride to 2008's 'Ilembe,' a tribute to the 18th-century tribal warrior Shaka Zulu, covered in an Around the World column on its release. 'Zulu Farm,' first of a planned Ladysmith trilogy about life in South Africa, collects songs primarily from the pair's own overlapping childhood experiences, presented in the tradition-rooted style that became familiar to the world after central roles in Paul Simon's 'Graceland' album and tours gave the ensemble a global presence.
"Most of these songs we sing, even the traditional songs and the songs we wrote as a group, are the songs that always have lessons of encouragement, this kind of instruction," Mazibuko says. "When we sing, we inspire ourselves and want to make ourselves stronger. Farm life was not the easy life. Always have to be strong and make yourself strong all the time."
That can be tricky for any child anywhere. But where he came from it was acutely tough. Apartheid was an inescapable presence, even for a child.
"No way to erase that from your mind," he says. "Something that was everyday life."
The reality of the conditions intruded into even the most innocent childhood experiences, including those involving the songs on this album.
"Every time you came back from the field, singing and enjoying with other kids, you came back to see that your parents were suffering," he says.
His father's ability to work and provide for the family was hampered by bad feet that made it hard for him to walk.
"It was a very poverty life. That was the thing worrying me every day. To see my mother go to the field and collect some food she could get and be able to cook for us. My family didn't have anything. My grandparents had a lot of food and cattle, goats, chickens. It was a lot of food if I visit them, so I could see the kind of life we should lead. But in my home was none of that."
That puts a light on the 'Zulu Farm' songs' role in his young life, with one of particular note, especially with the perspective he has now, as a successful artist at age 62.
"It's so fulfilling to be able to sing them, because they put me back to when I grew up and remember how strong they made me," he says. "These songs are the songs that made us to believe, believe we can do anything. For instance, 'Leliyafu,' the cloud song: Singing for the rain and the sun. This is a song that made us when we were growing up believe we are in control of everything."
He laughs, thinking back on that innocence of being able to sing a song about having control over the very weather, control over nature in a world where – to most observers – it appeared that he and his people were utterly powerless.
"You know, the child's mind," he says. "It made us very strong and made us happy, helped us grow in every way."
Ladysmith Black Mambazo, 'Leliyafu'
And this may well be the most personal album of Ladysmith Black Mambazo's long, vaunted career. For Mazibuko, it's not just a tribute to his childhood, but to his parents.
"My father, he was a great singer," he says. "I didn't see him do this, but he told me he used to lead the singing when someone was getting married. Said he was famous for that, the best in the area. His voice was wonderful when he was singing to us. Most I saw him singing was to my younger sister and brother, singing lullabies to them."
No specific songs he associates with his father are on this album, though.
"But there is a song my mother used to sing to me, and my grandmother, too," he says. "It was a song [for] when the storm is coming: 'Imithi Gobakahle" ['Children Come Home']. I remember that from when I was very young. Then the one called 'Cabhayeye' ['Puddles']: The rain is a very precious thing in our culture. Our continent doesn't have as much rain as other places. Every time when it starts to rain, we took off our shirts and go and play in the rain."
The two other albums in the planned trilogy will address other aspects of this life, one of songs of women written by Shabalala and recorded with the associated ensemble Women of Mambazo that had been led by the leader's wife, Nellie, who was shot and killed by a masked gunman in 2003. The other is a live recording made at a worker's hostel during the 2010 World Cup tournament in South Africa, featuring songs of township life that were written by Nellie.
For now, though, youth comes very much to the present for Mazibuko.
"My grandson is beating me," he says, interrupting the conversation. "I have four. I enjoy them very much. But this one's naughty! He beats me so much because I am not paying attention. He calls me and I didn't respond, so in order to get my attention... so bad!"
But he's also getting the traditions handed down.
"I do sing to them. And they also like to sing. They like Mambazo music!"