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Ladysmith Black Mambazo

October 2009

Normally it's group leader Joseph Shabalala who does all the talking but this time novice interviewee Albert Mazibuko is in the chair. Or rather on the phone. Is Joseph getting lazy these days? "He is a teacher," laughs Albert.
"So he wants to know that the person he taught can do what he used to do."
Which makes him sound like a junior but he has been a member of the South African a capella group from the start, 44 years ago.
"When we started we used to drive in a very tiny car and sometimes that car broke so we'd have to push it.
"Now we sit on a plane, we check in to a hotel and somebody comes and drives us everywhere... it's so wonderful."
The roots of their style of singing, called Isicathamiya (pronounced is-cot-a-me-ya) is in the South African mines at the turn of the 20th century when men would work away from home.
"At home they would sing with their mothers, fathers, children, uncles and girlfriends," says Albert.
"So when they were in the mines by themselves and they missed home they would sing to entertain themselves."
On returning to their homelands, they brought this tradition with them and villages would regularly host singing competitions, as they do to this day.
When Albert was a child, he had no access to a television or radio.
"The music that was in my ears growing up was the cock crowing, the moos of the cows, the sheep and chickens... all this kind of music. We had no radio."
He adds: "We sang as a family. My father was always singing.
"I had one brother and three sisters and he'd sing to us all the time, until we'd go to sleep. And mother was always singing when she was fetching water or firewood. Even when she was sad she would sing. I'd look at her and she'd have tears in her eyes. I'd ask why and she said 'when you grow up you will understand but singing makes me strong.'"
With his cousin Joseph, he found work as a mechanic in a Durban factory.
"When he said he wanted to form a group I was very excited. And I fell in love with it."
The regular weekend performances in neighbouring towns nearly got them both the sack.
The last warning was a turning point for Albert.
"I was told that I would be fired if I was absent one more day. We were always absent on Fridays and Mondays because we had to go and sing somewhere. I told them that it's not that I don't like my job but I will take a chance with this. If it doesn't work I will come back to work. And they said 'OK'.
"And I've never been back."
The group reached an international audience in the late '80s when Paul Simon recorded with them on his Graceland album.
Since then, Ladysmith Black Mambazo have recorded with Stevie Wonder and Dolly Parton, won three Grammy awards and played for everyone from the Queen to the Pope to Nelson Mandela.
The current line-up features just two originals in Joseph and Albert. Four are Joseph's sons. Albert's brother Abednego joined in 1975, as did Russel Mthembu.
Albert is now in his 60s but reckons he has another 30 years left.
"I will sing until I'm 90," he laughs.
What about all the travelling?
"The travelling is not that difficult. You sit in a car and somebody drives you to the airport. Then somebody will push your luggage. You sit on the plane... that's not a problem for me."

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