Ladysmith Black Mambazo is still best known for its collaboration with Paul Simon on his "Graceland" album - and, perhaps, for its Life Savers commercials. But the South African vocal group, performing Saturday night in Olympia, hasn't forgotten its beginnings.
Ladysmith’s most recent album, “Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu,” returned to the traditional Zulu music of isicathamiya, and it won the 2009 Grammy for Best Traditional World Music Album.
“It surprised us when it won the Grammy,” said Albert Mazibuko, who has sung with Ladysmith since 1969. “We had been recording some albums with other artists, and we were kind of drifting away from our style. For this album, we went back to our roots.”
The album celebrates Shaka Zulu, a 19th century Zulu chieftain who is known for uniting the tribes and credited with numerous social and military innovations.
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“He is a great inspiration,” Mazibuko said. “He was a great hero. He believed in perfection and unity.”
“He was a warrior, an athlete, a singer, a dancer, a visionary; he was so many things,” Joseph Shabalala, Ladysmith’s lead singer and founder, said in an article on the group’s Web site (ladysmithblackmambazo.com). “He was a diplomat, too. He shows that we don’t have to have any excuse in life. You can achieve anything.”
Saturday’s concert will be the group’s second at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts. Ladysmith’s beautiful harmonies and energetic dance moves impressed audiences here in 2007.
It’s a process to achieve the harmonious blending of voices for which Ladysmith has become known. Some members have been singing together since the ’50s, though the group was officially formed in 1964.
“Sometimes, songs just come together instantly, maybe in just an hour,” Mazibuko said. “But some songs take time, maybe days or weeks, to get together.”
The group’s next album will include a song composed by Shabalala and recorded in a single recording session.
“Shabalala just created the song while we were in the studio recording, and in an hour, the song was complete,” Mazibuko said. “Because we have been together so long, our voices don’t need to be tuned. We just have to learn the melody and the lyrics.”
In fact, the core members of Ladysmith have been together so long that the time has come to introduce new song leaders.
“We want to show the new blood in the group,” Mazibuko said. “The new guys, we are grooming them, and they are leading some of the songs. So it’s more vibrant.
“It’s very satisfying to us,” he added, “because it shows that what we are doing is going to be around even when we are no longer in this world.”
Saturday’s concert will include opportunities for audience members to join in the singing, he said.
“On this tour, we have a special treat. We have a song we teach the audience and then we sing this song with them.”