Musical and spiritual mix

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Ladysmith Black Mambazo with special guest Muntu Valdo take to the stage in the Concert Hall, Brighton Dome on Thursday June 16 at 7.30pm.

For over 40 years, the voices of Ladysmith Black Mambazo have married the intricate rhythms and harmonies of their native South African musical traditions to the sounds and sentiments of Christian gospel music.

The result is a musical and spiritual mix which has touched a worldwide audience representing every corner of the religious, cultural and ethnic landscape.

Assembled in the early 1960s, in Durban South Africa, by Joseph Shabalala (still currently leading the group) – then a young farm boy turned factory worker – Joseph took the name Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Ladysmith being the name of Shabalala’s rural hometown; Black being a reference to oxen, the strongest of all farm animals; and Mambazo being the Zulu word for axe, a symbol of the group’s ability to “chop down” any singing rival who might challenge them.

Their collective voices were so tight and their harmonies so polished that they were eventually banned from competitions – although they were welcomed to participate strictly as entertainers, Joseph recalls.

But the group’s path had a specific direction, as Joseph says: “To bring this gospel of loving one another all over the world. But the message is not specific to any one religious orientation.

“Without hearing the lyrics, this music gets into the blood, because it comes from the blood. It evokes enthusiasm and excitement, regardless of what you follow spiritually.”

A radio broadcast in 1970 opened the door to their first record contract – the beginning of an ambitious discography that currently includes more than fifty recordings. Their philosophy in the studio continues to be just as much about preservation of musical heritage as it is about entertainment.

As Joseph explains, the group borrows heavily from a traditional music called isicathamiya (is-cot-a-ME-Ya), which developed in the mines of South Africa, where black workers were taken by rail to work far away from their homes and their families.

Poorly housed and paid worse, the mine workers would entertain themselves after a six-day week by singing songs into the small hours on Sunday morning. When the miners returned to the homelands, this musical tradition returned with them.