Joseph Shabalala, Ladysmith Black Mambazo founder, dies aged 78

<span>Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA</span>
Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

Joseph Shabalala, the bandleader who brought the South African vocal harmony group Ladysmith Black Mambazo to global success, has died aged 78.

Shabalala died in hospital in Pretoria and the news was confirmed by the group’s manager, Xolani Majozi. No cause of death has been announced.

“Our Founder, our Teacher and most importantly, our Father left us today for eternal peace,” the choir said on social media. “We celebrate and honour your kind heart and your extraordinary life. Through your music and the millions who you came in contact with, you shall live forever.” South African president Cyril Ramaphosa called him a “veteran choral maestro”.

Shabalala started singing as a teenager with the groups Durban Choir and the Highlanders, before forming Ezimnyama in 1959. He later christened it Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Ladysmith for his hometown, Black for the local livestock, and Mambazo, the Zulu word for axe, as a metaphor for the group’s sharpness.

Their exquisitely harmonised a cappella songs in Zulu became hugely popular in South Africa after the release of their debut album in 1973. The group’s members would go on to convert to Christianity and bring religious music into their repertoire.

Joseph Shabalala, front left, with other members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon in 1993.
Joseph Shabalala, front left, with other members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon in 1993. Photograph: AP

They came to global attention after they collaborated with Paul Simon on his 1986 album Graceland, co-writing the song Homeless – its melody based on a Zulu wedding song – and singing the backing to Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.

Over the years, they also collaborated with Dolly Parton, Josh Groban, Emmylou Harris and more; the group appeared in the Michael Jackson film Moonwalker. In 1993, they accompanied Nelson Mandela to his Nobel peace prize ceremony in Oslo. Their theme for England’s 1995 Rugby World Cup campaign, a version of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, reached No 15 in the UK singles charts, and a 1998 best-of compilation album reached No 2.

Shabalala retired from Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 2014; four of his sons perform in the current lineup. The group have been nominated for 17 Grammy awards, winning five, most recently for best world music album in 2017.

In 2002, Shabalala’s wife, Nellie, a church pastor who had her own group, Women of Mambazo, was shot and killed in Durban. Joseph was injured in the attack as he pursued the gunman. Mboneni Mdunge was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The South African government shared its condolences to his family and paid tribute to him on Twitter, writing in Xhosa: “Ulale ngoxolo Tata ugqatso lwakho ulufezile” – “Rest in peace, father, your race is complete”. Former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba said Shabalala “will be remembered as a giant of South African music and a pioneer of the industry”.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party said in a statement that the group’s “music spoke to the social realities of black cultural norms and traditions, and was able to bring to light the social conditions of black South Africans”.