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Ladysmith Black Mambazo And Hugh Masekela: Carrying South Africa

Joseph Shabalala grew up on a farm near the town of Ladysmith, South Africa. In the 1950s, much of the work there took place in the mine, with inhuman working conditions. But on Saturday nights in Durban, Shabalala heard choruses of miners singing in Zulu, in the Isicathamiya style. Shabalala led a family chorus himself. One night in his dreams, Shabalala heard a new harmony, a hymn-like harmony, and awakened saying, "This is the sound that I want, and I can teach it to my guys."

Ladysmith Black Mambazo is Shabalala's dream made true. It's named "Ladysmith" for his hometown, "Black" because the strongest animal on the farm is the black ox, and "Mambazo," the Zulu word for "axe." An axe chops down the competition. Singing in South Africa is a competitive sport.

Born in 1939 in Witbank near Johannesburg, Hugh Masekela grew up when "every house had a gramophone," as he says. When he was 3, he thought the musicians lived inside that record player, and he wanted to meet them, especially Louis Armstrong. A cleric and school teacher gave Masekela a trumpet, which he quickly mastered.

In time, Masekela chafed against the oppressive apartheid laws and their brutal enforcement. He had seen the movie Young Man with a Horn starring Kirk Douglas, and African-American jazz became a beacon of freedom to him. In the early 1960s, he escaped to London and the U.S. Harry Belafonte, then a calypso star, sponsored Masekela's studies at the Manhattan School of Music, where he played in the symphony and sang in the opera choir.

Masekela remembers Miles Davis encouraging him to "do your own thing," and in 1968, he did. He fused African music, jazz and pop into the #1 hit "Grazin' in the Grass." Forty years later, it's a summer anthem once again on JazzSet.

In 1986, Paul Simon introduced Ladysmith Black Mambazo on his landmark album Graceland. "Homeless," a highlight of this JazzSet, comes from Graceland, as Ladysmith Black Mambazo sings at the 2005 Santa Fe Jazz and International Music Festival, and Hugh Masekela plays the 2007 Tanglewood Jazz Festival.


Thanks to recording engineers Justin Peacock from KUVO Denver, and Antonio Oliart from WGBH Boston. Thanks to Bruce Dunlap and Fred Taylor.

Copyright 2008 WBGO