Ladysmith Black Mambazo brings to Pittsburgh history-laden music

By Andy Tybout

Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Byham Theater

Feb. 28 at 6 p.m.

Tickets $36… Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Byham Theater

Feb. 28 at 6 p.m.

Tickets $36 for Orchestra/Mezzanine, $18 for Gallery

Purchase Pitt Arts tickets by midnight

Even after multiple Grammies, a liberated South Africa and collaborations with Paul Simon and Michael Jackson, Albert Mazibuko still remembers the time when, during apartheid, he and the rest of Ladysmith Black Mambazo had to sing for a police commissioner.

This was a familiar routine — the police would ask the group what gave them permission to travel, and in return, the group would try to sway the police with their music. In this instance, the approach worked especially well.

“We did our magic singing for him, and then he said, ‘What you do is very good, you should have permission to go everywhere where you want to go,’” Mazibuko said. “We’re the first group in South Africa to have the permission to travel freely.”

Formed in the ’60s by Mazibuko’s cousin, Joseph Shabalala, Ladysmith Black Mambazo — which will bring its Pitt Arts-sponsored “magic singing” to the Byham this Sunday — is now one of the most famous and iconic singing groups in the world. But the rise of an all-black choir — especially amidst the chokehold of apartheid — took more than just hypnotic music.

“That was a great challenge,” Mazibuko said of the apartheid years. “Because of that, we had to have permission to be in one place.”

Their big break came when singer-songwriter Paul Simon journeyed to South Africa to recruit various artists and bands for his now-legendary 1986 album Graceland. Ladysmith Black Mambazo was one such band.

“We were very concerned,” Mazibuko said. “We said, ‘Wow! He sings a different kind of music. How is he going to work with us?’”

Their answer came in the form of a demo Simon sent the group — a simple two verses that would later become their most famous song, “Homeless.” After an unsuccessful first day of recording, the group assembled that night to pray and practice the song until they nailed it. The next day, they came to the studio prepared.

“We sang the whole song for him,” Mazibuko said. “He said, ‘This is the one.’”

The group’s two songs on Graceland — “Homeless” and the jaunty “Diamonds On the Soles Of Her Shoes” — vaulted them onto the international stage. Since then, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has known numerous brushes with celebrity, recording with artists ranging from Dolly Parton to Stevie Wonder.

But perhaps no moment in the group’s post-Graceland career is as special to Mazibuko as its numerous performances for Nelson Mandela. In particular, Mazibuko recalled the first time he and his bandmates met the leader: Mandela’s birthday party. The South African icon was so taken by their music that he began to dance with them onstage. Later, Mandela told them that their music had given him “great inspiration” while he was in jail.

“[Performing for Mandela] was like when you are a child at Christmastime,” Mazibuko said. “To meet Mandela — to see him so closely — you don’t know how to express the gratitude that we have.”

Unfortunately, such idyllic moments were too often counterbalanced by tragedy. Perhaps one of the most famous tragic events is when an off-duty security guard murdered a member of the group, Headman Shabalala, in 1991.

“We sang a song that we just finished recording at that time. After we sang that song, we felt his spirit was around us,” Mazibuko said. “He is not gone. He is with us.”

Though the world that surrounds Ladysmith Black Mambazo is far from ideal, joy permeates every album, every performance. Annabelle Clippinger, director of Pitt Arts, encouraged students to take advantage of their performance in conjunction with Pitt Night.

“It’s a chance to experience music from South Africa — really very roots kind of music,” Clippinger said. “We can understand, we can learn about the culture through the music. All barriers are stripped away.”

While Mazibuko comes from a radically different background, he would almost certainly agree — Ladysmith Black Mambazo still subscribes to the philosophy of its formative years, when the members were still entrenched in apartheid.

“We had a kind of belief that, when it comes to music, there’s nothing that you cannot achieve,” Mazibuko said.