Joseph Shabalala, founder of the South African a cappella vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whose breathtakingly complex and scintillating harmonies shot them to global fame in the 1980s when they were featured prominently on Paul Simon’s blockbuster album “Graceland,” has died in Pretoria. He was 78.
No cause of death was cited in an announcement posted Tuesday on the group’s social media accounts. “Bhekizizwe Joseph Shabalala, Our Founder, our Teacher and most importantly, our Father left us today for eternal peace. We celebrate and honor your kind heart and your extraordinary life. Through your music and the millions who you came in contact with, you shall live forever. From the stage after every show, you shared your heart … ‘Go with Peace, with Love and with Harmony’.”
Shabalala created the ensemble that would eventually be known as Ladysmith Black Mambazo (“the black axe of Mambazo”) in 1958, focusing on the sound indigenous to the region around Durban, outside which Shabalala was born and grew up in the district of Ladysmith, Emnabithi.
The group’s multilayered sound, expressed in everything from harmonized whispers to piercing, goose-bump-inducing falsetto flutters — a distant cousin to the street-corner doo-wop sound African American singers popularized in the 1950s — caught Simon’s ear and captivated him sufficiently to invite Shabalala to contribute to the album for which he traveled to Africa in the mid-1980s to collaborate with various musicians.
With the cross-continental music that emerged in songs such as “Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” on Simon’s album, the group was invited to perform in the U.S., notably in high-profile spots on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” that helped turn Shabalala and his compatriots — most of whom were family members — into global superstars.
They were signed to the same U.S. major label Simon was on at the time — Warner Bros. — and released a string of albums of their own.
In the liner notes of one of those releases, “Journey of Dreams” in 1988, Shabalala wrote, “This Journey of Dreams began a long time ago on the farm and children would come to my dreams and sing to me. Now that we have made this record working with (producer) Russ Titelman and blessed by Paul Simon’s guidance, I feel the dreams are now living inside the music as never before.
“For the first time I have made the music on record exactly as my dreams would tell me and for this sound I am grateful. “