Ladysmith Black Mambazo still spreading its message through music

Formed in 1964, South African a cappella group gained fame with Paul Simon's 'Graceland' album

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If you go

What: Ladysmith Black Mambazo, in concert.

When: 8 p.m. March 8.

Where: The Aladdin Theater, 3017 S.E. Milwaukie Ave., Portland.

Cost: $32.50-$35 through Ticketfly, 877-435-9849.

Information: 503-234-9694 or Aladdin Theater.

Since 1964, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has brought its joyous, uplifting music from its native South Africa to the rest of the world.

The songs that the a cappella group performs have changed over the decades. But the spirit and meaning behind them has not wavered.

"I don't think our message has changed at all over the last 50 years," said Ladysmith's Albert Mazibuko. "Our message and mission has been one of peace, love and harmony — of people working together for a better world. At first, this message was just to the people of South Africa, during the terrible years of apartheid; but since we began traveling all over the world, thanks to Paul Simon and his 'Graceland' album, we've spread the message globally."

"Graceland" was released in 1986 and, after appearing with Simon, Ladysmith began regular international touring. The group now spends from five to six months outside South Africa each year. But it doesn't quit working when it gets back home.

"In South Africa, we're probably away from home another month, but that's spread out over the remaining time at home," Mazibuko said in an email interview.

"We spend a lot of time rehearsing, four days a week every week," he said. "It's our job, and we must keep at it. But when I say "job," I don't mean in a bad way. It is what we do to earn a living, but it's such a joy, a blessing and all."

The rigorous rehearsals are required to bring Ladysmith's songs to life.

Rooted in a style of singing developed in coal mines by workers struggling under the apartheid system, Ladysmith's music is written and arranged by the group's founder, Joseph Shabalala, who formed the group in 1964.

A few years later, Shabalala had to disband the original Ladysmith. But in 1969, he asked Mazibuko to join the reformed group, which struggled with police and government harassment designed to keep it from performing during the years of apartheid rule.

"I don't think our group, alone, played a part in ending apartheid," Mazibuko said. "However, I do think the collective musical spirit from South Africa, led in part by the 'Graceland' album and tour with all the South Africans performing and playing front of thousands of people, did play a part in it. But there were many, many thousands of people who played a part in ending apartheid."

After being introduced to the West, Ladysmith began releasing its albums here, winning its first of three Grammy Awards in 1988.

Ladysmith's new album, titled "Ladysmith Black Mambazo & Friends," is made up of collaborations with other artists.

"It's been an honor for us to have worked with so many famous performers," Mazibuko said. "Paul Simon, of course, Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Josh Groban, Sarah McLachlan and so many others. … I think it's a spirit others feel with our singing. Sometimes they have a song that calls out for a sound like we make. People will reach out to us.

"Other times, it's us who reaches out, and we've been very blessed by having so many special people say they were happy to sing with us. In fact, we are working on a new CD, a collection of American gospel songs, and we have some people in mind that we think would be wonderful on those songs. Maybe they'll say yes and we'll have a very special new recording."

On its current tour, Ladysmith Mambazo is performing just one selection from "& Friends" and sets are heavy on "Songs from a Zulu Farm," the group's Grammy-nominated 2011 album.

"These are songs and stories (made into songs) that we used to sing when we were children on the farms outside of Ladysmith," he said. "Of course, back in the 1950s, we did not have TV or radio or anything to entertain ourselves. We had to supply the singing and dancing and stories. These are some of the stories, and we wanted to share these with our fans around the world."

On stage, Ladysmith is led by Shabalala. The group includes his four sons and Mazibuko and his sons, making the group a family affair.

"In the early 1990s, two members retired and one passed away," Mazibuko said. "Those three members were replaced by three of Joseph's sons. There are still four of us from the 'Graceland' album. We still have the seven from 1993. So in the last 18 years, we have had only two further changes.

"One member retired and was replaced by a fourth son of Joseph. I guess that means if one wants to join the group, you should be a son of Joseph," Mazibuko said. "However, he has no other sons to join, so next will be the grandkids. Our grandchildren are in their early 20s and have their own group — a training group for our future singers."

So Ladysmith is likely to be around for decades longer, continuing to spread its message of peace and love with its gorgeous music.