Joseph Shabalala from Ladysmith Black Mambazo. File Picture.
Joseph Shabalala from Ladysmith Black Mambazo. File Picture.

Music heritage: remembering Joseph “Mshengu” Shabalala

By Time of article published Nov 30, 2021

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By Dr Vusi Shongwe

WHEN our internationally acclaimed cultural icon, the inimitable Joseph “Mshengu” Shabalala, transitioned this world on February 11, 2020, his death provoked an outpouring of heartfelt tributes and commentators testifying to the prodigious accomplishments of a long and well-spent life in music.

As Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his notebooks long, long ago: a “life well used brings happy death”. We are grateful to Mshengu for his many contributions, particularly in the preservation of our treasured music heritage.

In sharing our cherished recollections of him, we assuage our sense of loss. As Thomas Campbell aptly put it: “To live in the hearts of those we leave behind is not to die. So be it with Mshengu. He remains indelibly etched in our memories and in our hearts. If a person dies, his or her family is necessarily and inescapably distressed. But if we are to take our faith to heart, our dear departed does not really go far. One could almost see the beaming face of Mshengu and recite the words of Henry Scott Holland in his poem, Death is nothing at all.

I have only slipped away into the next room,

I am I; you are you

Whatever we were to each other.

That we still are.

Our brief moment and all will be as it was before,

How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again

Historical background of Ladysmith Black Mambazo:

When describing Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Tom Nelligan in his piece “Ladysmith Black Mambazo”, which is worth quoting at length, states that voices in close harmony are a common sound in the world’s musical traditions, but few traditional groups have ever harmonised so richly as Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

The unaccompanied music, mostly in the Zulu language, is based on a striking blend of men’s voices that rise and fall in velvety balance, punctuated by perfectly synchronised dance steps that include some high kicking that would make the Rockettes envious.

The songs speak of the universal themes of peace, hope, and faith, as well as cultural history and pride, presented in concerts that are filled with a sense of brotherhood and joy. With more than 50 albums, two Grammy awards, and a dozen more Grammy nominations, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has arguably become Africa’s best-known and most successful singing group ever. Even more profoundly, the group has become a cultural symbol as witnesses to the historic changes in an evolving country undertaking a landmark transition to democracy.

Nelligan further states that the founder and leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo is singer, composer, and arranger Joseph Shabalala, who was born in 1941 in the town of Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal. He sang for fun as a boy, and as a teenager he left his parent’s farm and moved in search of factory work to nearby Durban, where he soon began singing with a group called the Durban Choir. In 1960, he discovered the Highlanders, a group that sang Zulu music under the direction of Galinye Hlatshwayo, a man who helped shape Shabalala’s vocal style and inspired him to form a singing group of his own.

It is worth tossing in Craig Johnson’s powerful words in reference to the relationship between Joseph Shabalala and Galinye Hlatshwayo. Johnson put it aptly when he said: “It's my belief that any musician owes a debt of gratitude and acknowledgement to those who showed him the way." Those words were written by Johnson for the liner notes of his solo CD, Way Down the Road. Indeed, back in Ladysmith in the early 1960s Shabalala formed a locally popular group called Ezimnyama Ngenkani (“The Black Ones”) that was a forerunner of Mambazo.

In 1964 Mshengu said that the smoothly layered harmony sound that would become Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s signature came to him in a dream. The frequently shifting line-up in the group’s early years was mostly drawn from among Shabalala’s brothers and cousins.

The style that Ladysmith Black Mambazo would make famous is called isicathamiya, which comes from a term for “stepping softly”. It is a rhythmic, harmonious call-and-response, an a cappella style that traces its roots to homesick Zulu coal miners who adapted their traditional songs and dances to the harsh living conditions they faced in the rigidly segregated South Africa of the early 20th century.

Isicathamiya is based on close harmonies, volume that rises and falls from soft to loud and again, and intricate, expressive choreography that often involves dancing on tiptoe. It is closely related to the style called mbube, the South African musical from named for the 1930s Solomon Linda song that was the basis for the Weavers’ American hit Wimoweh.

Joseph “Mshengu” Shabalala: our cultural icon:

Mshengu was a formidable musician of bottomless talent and, when needed, gravitas. Thomas Bruckner once said: “You can teach almost any musically talented person to make music that sounds like music; what interest me are people who make music that sounds like themselves.”

Mshengu was certainly a composer and arranger whose music sounded like no other. He used his extraordinary ability and love for Isicathamiya music to deliver to his audiences to a state of grace in the language of music. Shabalala was a great artist, totally dedicated to his cause, and was a lovely human being.

He is sorely missed but is celebrated for his rich legacy. He embodied a precious link to the grand tradition of music making where eloquence, poetry and a sublime restraint were outstanding characteristics. He lived the maxim that art and humanity are inseparable. He was respected by all generations. Young people loved him, and we loved him, too. One of the most important things he taught many people was about music being a language.

Mshengu, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s flamboyant lead singer, was a remarkable musician, an insightful teacher, and a warm-hearted and generous individual. He leaves a rich legacy — captured on recordings — of a radiantly beautiful Isicathamiya sound, an ever-curious musical sensibility, and a genial personality that belied a demanding and disciplined approach to his art. He will be missed, but not forgotten — a wonderful example for us all of a life to be celebrated.

The way he sang and spoke were exactly like his stage performances. He was a teacher. When he demonstrated, it was poetry — he controlled a phrase from beginning to end. Mshengu was an incredible perfectionist: every note was critical when it came to intonation (he had beautiful intonation himself). His music was original, surprising, elegant, masterfully crafted, and deeply affecting. He paid detailed attention to phrasing, direction, tempo, vibrato, and style. And he also had a remarkable sense of rhythm. Mshengu got the sound the same way he got everything else: through meticulous attention to detail.

Mshengu was a faithful, confident man who, at the same time, took nothing for granted and made no assumptions. Every song he sung, every lesson he taught, every aspect of every project he embarked upon — everything counted. He also wanted to get every performance as close to his original idea as he could. His high standards did not require condescension as part of the package. In fact, I think condescension was foreign to his nature. For him, Isichathamiya music wasn’t about making a beautiful sound for the sake of it.

He couldn’t stand hearing a single note that didn’t have meaning and direction. Diligence was deeply important to Shabalala. He was also a renowned performer and choreographer. He and his band showed complete command, understanding and respect for a music they have done so much to preserve. His was a prodigious talent, and when he was on stage he could mesmerise with his vibrancy and agility, despite his age. Well-heeled audiences were always treated to a virtuoso performance. Indeed, he elevated the repertoire of Isicathamiya music to his own high standards.

His music was revelatory in the depth of insight and spirituality. Mshengu really believed that God, despite his being born to desperate circumstances, smiled on him. The difference was that he accepted it and smiled back at God; and because of that, the world will never be the same! He was truly a man of unquestionable human quality and great spirituality. He also had an unfailing courtesy towards his fellow compatriots. He was talented, but never had an ego problem. He was always part of the team. He had a tremendous musical ear. He was a very pleasant person with a good sense of humour.

Indeed, he was a gentleman and a gentle man. Described as a fabulous musician who was very conscientious about doing a good job; he was never a gasonader or fond of rodomontading. In short, he detested magniloquence. Mshengu richly deserves to be remembered and celebrated. The effects of his work flow forth into the future in the tradition of engagement, generosity and wisdom that he nurtured within those who were close to him, especially members of his music group.

I would venture to say with regards to the isicathamiya genre, he had very few equals, if any. His rubbing shoulders with many of the movers and shakers of the music industry added an immeasurable richness to his work. His depth of knowledge, coupled with a generosity of spirit, not to mention his genuinely nurturing gifts, made him a cherished mentor, as exemplified by his son, who took over the position of lead singer even before his demise.

He attracted attention because of his exuberance, confidence, and stylishness. There was something magical and personal about him as an artist. It was a warmth and sincerity of expression that stayed with one who was listening to him leading the whole group of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. When the Office of the Premier hosted a glittering gala dinner fo rhim, with some trepidation – as I was a bit awe of this great artist – I went to him to introduce myself as one of the organisers of the dinner.

The welcoming and unpretentious Mshengu was grateful that I had come to greet him. I was immensely impressed by his unassuming and warm personality. His gracious and unassuming nature complimented his fiercely creative and probing mind. Professor Shabalala’s compassion and kindness seemed to know no bounds. He also possessed a deep personal integrity that underpinned and guided his work throughout his musical life.

It is axiomatic that Mshengu had an unparalleled passion for Isicathamiya music. Mshengu did not rise to the top of his field because he was born a musician. He elevated himself to the apex of the genre of Isicathamiya because he had a passion for this kind of music.

Mshengu, Dong’alamavuso had a great gift for inspiring not just the pros of isicathamiya and those who looked up to him, but the amateurs as well. Mshengu inspired other singers of isicathamiya to become familiar with our heritage. He was an affectionate father and zealous teacher. Of Mshengu’s genius as a creator of beautiful sounds and quality music, there can be no doubt.

Mshengu is be remembered for many things. His performances were visceral. Almost throughout of his life, Mshengu pioneered the isichathamiya musical style which inspired and spawned a number of isichathamiya musical groups. Indeed, Mshengu devoted the rest of his working life promoting the isichathamiya genre of music. He left behind a legacy of preserved and original sound and tunes, of friendship and humour, of love of music and love of life.

The nation misses him for his legendary competence, kindness, and a sense of humour. When Jerry Butler, who was the friend of Curtis Mayfield, the famous African-American jazz singer, was asked whether he could summon a final word about his old friend, he laughed and said: "I don't think there will ever be a last word about Curtis," and then provided one: "His message was his music, and his music was his message."

Similarly, the same could be said about Joseph Shabalala, whose message was also his music, and whose music was also his message. Furthermore, Curtis Mayfield once said: “Everything was a song. Every conversation, every personal hurt, every observance of people in stress, happiness and love … if you could feel it, I could feel it. And I could write a song about it."

Mayfield’s observation reminds one of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s famous song Homeless, which depicts personal hurt and stress.

KwaZulu-Natal government honours Joseph “Mshengu” Shabalala:

The erection of a tombstone and monument, which was unveiled on November 27, 2021, befits the stature of this colossal giant of isicathamiya music and veritable ambassador or representative of African culture throughout the world. Professor Joseph Shabalala and his peers in this genre of music have rarely been honoured by their people and institutions, save inter alia, a gala dinner in honour of the great achievements of this illustrious African and genius, which was hosted by the KwaZulu-Natal government to celebrate the milestones in the life and journey of this icon.

The KZN government needs to be extolled for honouring this gentleman, a venerable musician extraordinaire. What the provincial government has done is ans act of love at its best. To sustain the abiding legacy of Professor Joseph Shabalala, it might be a good idea to build a school of music and a museum in his memory. Mshengu’s rich legacy clearly encompassed several areas.

Among them are the promotion of isicathamiya music and the preservation of our heritage through music. With isicathamiya music, Mshengu started something unstoppable, but also something that thrilled and galvanised our culture and heritage. Today’s memorial lecture about Mshengu and tomorrow’s unveiling of his tombstone-cum-monument attest to the continued vitality of Mshengu’s enduring legacy. Mshengu has a special place in our hearts. His legacy will shine on as long as we all remember our roots.

One can hear the members of the Ladysmith Black Mambazo saying: “Mshengu, high in the heavens, may you be serene. We, the proud members of the group you formed, will continue to give dignity to every note.”

Mshengu, South Africans won’t forget you; your honest smile accompanies them.

My hope is that Mshengu will be remembered in South Africa and across the globe and will grow as long as there is memory of a song being sung. Our artists therefore never die, and they remain in the heart of art lovers through their works.

Passionately human in all that he did, Mshengu loved the good things in life and treated those with whom he came into contact with warm affection. Generous, thoughtful, direct and cultivated, he leaves the memory of a congenial man alongside that of a virtuoso musician.

Professor Joseph “Mshengu” Shabalala may be departed, but he has a lasting and spacious abode in our hearts.

| Shongwe is Former Head of the Department of the KwaZulu-Natal Royal Household and Chief Director for Heritage in the Office of the Premier. He is currently the Chief Director of the Heritage Resource Services in the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Arts and Culture. He writes in his personal capacity.

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