Lawson Mabhena News and Politics Editor
When Paul Simon introduced Ladysmith Black Mambazo during the Graceland Concert at Rufaro Stadium, Harare, in 1987, he explained that they were named after the mbazo, “a small axe, because of the power of their vocals”.
Ladysmith was their home town in KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa.
After being introduced by Simon, an American pop star who had turned solo, but rose to fame in the 60s as part of the duo Simon & Garfunkel, the acapella group broke into one of their greatest hits ever, “Nomathemba”.
They also performed the famous “Homeless” and “Hello My Baby,” and featured in Simon’s all-time hit “Call Me Al”.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Simon ended the concert with the most emotional piece of the show — the proposed South African national anthem — together with music arranger for the Graceland tour, Ray Phiri and jazz crooners, Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.
This particular version of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica” was South Africa’s first national anthem after independence in 1994 before the adoption of the new hybrid version in 1997.
It was also Zimbabwe’s first national anthem until 1994, while Zambia and Namibia also had it as the first national anthem.
Before the Graceland tour, Ladysmith Black Mambazo had already carved a name as probably the most influential group in Matabeleland boarding schools.
What Ladysmith Black Mambazo referred to as isicathamiya music, was and still is, commonly known as imbube in Zimbabwe.
Isichathamiya is the official name of the acapella vocals accompanied by a tip toe dance, created by migrant and local miners in South Africa during the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (Wenela) era in the 1930s.
Following another Ladysmith musician, Solomon Linda’s hit “Mbube (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)” a new version of isichathamiya was born.
This version — imbube — has since become part and parcel of Ndebele culture.
In boarding schools, groups named after Ladysmith Black Mambazo were formed in the 70s and are still alive until this day.
Gospel songs like “King of Kings”, “Siligugu Isphambano”, “Ofananaye” and “Nhliziyo Yami” are performed during Sunday service and assembly.
The most successful of such groups is Black Umfolosi which was formed in 1982 at George Silundika High School in Matabeleland North.
Black Umfolosi became the first imbube group from Zimbabwe to tour Europe in 1990 and were made famous locally by their hits “Ngithembe Wena” and “Unity,” a song they penned after being invited to perform during the 1989 Independence Day celebrations.
I remember late founder member Benia Phuthi once told me that promoters went out of their way to ensure that Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Black Umfolosi did not have competing shows.
They were always in different countries.
Surviving founder members Sotsha Ndlovu and Tomeki Dube are also dear friends.
In the mid-90s, Sunduza, led by the late Sam Banda, managed to break into the European tour scene. The group, which is now fronted by Banda’s son, Charles, has famous songs like “Bulawayo” and “eNjelele” — which receives regular play on ZTV.
Another dear friend, Jeys Marabini, was a member of Sunduza.
Imbizo is another successful group which toured at around the same time.
Amabubesi, a group fronted by Lameck “Chikwari” Moyo, made waves after being only the second group to have an imbube hit in shona: “Rega Kusarira”.
Previously, another song “Ndatambura”, by a much older group had made the charts.
Insingizi, another internationally touring group, were made famous by the song, “To All Walks Of Life”.
White Umfolosi, Ihawu Lesizwe, Ugodlwayo Bright Stars and the well-travelled Umdumo Wesizwe are a few other groups inspired by Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Perhaps the group that received the most personal grooming from Joseph Shabalala himself is Indosakusa: The Morning Star (formerly Impumelelo Shining Stars).
Led by founder Oscar Siziba, the group would visit Shabalala at his Ladysmith home and also had the chance to record “Wob’y ubuye,” a song written for the group by Shabalala.
I remember in 2013 when Siziba told me about the warm welcome they had received from Shabalala when they met for the first time.
Efforts to get Shabalala awarded a doctoral degree by a local university by artistes led by poet Albert Nyathi suffered a still birth, but it is never too late to honour a hero.
Shabalala’s footprint still reverberates today through the sound of world acclaimed Bulawayo all-female acapella group, Nobuntu.
I also had a Shabalala moment while at Fatima High School in Matabeleland North in 1999.
I was leading a group which called itself Black Nswilili and received airplay after being recorded by the late Radio Four (National FM) great, Maplot Jubane.
“Zube Nam”, “Emlanjeni” and “Ngithunyiwe Kini” were the Shabalala compositions that earned us airplay.
Bhekizizwe Joseph Siphat’mandla Mxoveni Mshengu Bigboy Shabalala may have died in his native South Africa on Tuesday, but in Zimbabwe, his music will never die.