Joseph Shabalala, who has died aged 78, was the founder, leader and musical director of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the most popular vocal group Africa has ever produced. They may be an a cappella choir who started out singing traditional songs in Zulu, but under Shabalala’s direction they created a distinctive and often thrilling harmony style that became massively popular in South Africa in the 1970s, and then a global phenomenon in the 80s after they collaborated with Paul Simon on his Graceland project.
They went on to win five Grammy awards (and were nominated for 17 others), release more than 50 albums, and perform before Nelson Mandela and the Queen. Celebrated for their live performances, which involve dance as well as unaccompanied vocals, Ladysmith often spend over six months a year touring outside South Africa – a workload that did not alter even when Shabalala stepped down from performing in 2014. The current lineup includes four of his sons.
He was born and brought up on a farm near the town of Ladysmith, out in the hills of KwaZulu-Natal. His parents, Jonathan and Nomandla, worked there and so did Joseph – the eldest of their eight children – after he was forced to leave school at the age of 12, because his father had died. He was joined on the farm by his second cousin Albert Mazibuko, who is still a member of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Albert described their early life to me in 2010, “looking after cattle, then goats and sheep and singing farm songs for calling the animals”. He looked up to Joseph “because he was a great singer and an expert in stick fighting [a ferocious traditional South African sport] and because he was very popular with the ladies … every boy wanted to be like him”.
While still a teenager, Shabalala moved to Durban, where he worked in a factory and sang in vocal groups, the Durban Choir and the Highlanders. In 1959 he formed Ezimnyama, which would be renamed Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Ladysmith was of course their home town, while Black referred to black oxen, “the strongest animals on the farm”, and Mambazo, said Albert, was “the Zulu word for axe … a warning they could chop down any competition”.
The group were competitive from the start, taking part in singing contests (an important part of South Africa’s musical tradition) but at first concentrating only on folk songs, rather than Shabalala’s own compositions, because he feared their rivals might steal them. Under his guidance they developed their unique style, switching suddenly and dramatically from stirring, intense and bass-heavy vocal work to quiet, delicate and almost whispered passages – matched with equally unexpected dance moves. In 1970 they began singing on radio programmes, and after being signed to Gallo Records in Johannesburg released their first album, Amabutho, in 1973. It was a big hit in South Africa.
By now they were performing Shabalala’s songs, as well as traditional material, at contests, but they won so frequently that they were banned in order to give others a chance. Their repertoire expanded to include hymns after he converted to Christianity. He later became a pastor in the Church of God of Prophecy.
International success followed their appearance on a BBC documentary, Rhythm of Resistance: The Music of South Africa, in 1979. Paul Simon saw it and invited them to appear on his massively successful, if controversial, 1986 album, Graceland. This was still the apartheid era, and Simon was criticised for travelling to the country to record, without the permission of the ANC, and so breaking the UN cultural boycott. The black South African artists he worked with had no objections. Ladysmith sang on two celebrated Graceland tracks, Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes and Homeless (which Shabalala wrote with Simon, making use of a Zulu wedding song). A subsequent tour, which involved Ladysmith playing alongside Simon and Hugh Masekela, included six nights at the Royal Albert Hall in London in April 1987.
Their first international album, Shaka Zulu, was produced by Simon and released the same month. It won Ladysmith their first Grammy, for best traditional folk recording, reached 34 in the UK charts and included Shabalala’s exquisite Rain, Rain, Beautiful Rain.
The timing was perfect for Ladysmith to become international stars. The so-called world music movement was just taking off, and in South Africa the apartheid era was at last nearing an end. In February 1990 Mandela was released from prison, and four months later he invited Ladysmith to join him for his birthday celebrations – at which he danced with them as they sang. Three years later he invited them to accompany him to Oslo, when he was awarded the Nobel peace prize, and in 1994 they sang at the historic concert in Pretoria that celebrated Mandela’s inauguration as president.
It was, I remember, a gloriously emotional and optimistic occasion at which the slope beneath the Union Building, for long the bastion of apartheid, echoed to the sound of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the hymn that had become the anthem of the new South Africa. Shabalala would have been arrested if he had sung this in the era before majority rule, but it now became a key part of their repertoire. As Shabalala told me in 2006: “We sing it every night we perform. We sing it because the lyrics are just like praying. We are praying for tomorrow.”
Ladysmith Black Mambazo now became a commercial success, helped by Heinz, who used their song The Star and the Wiseman in an unlikely but inspired TV advert. The resulting Best Of album with the same title reached No 2 in the UK charts in 1998 – an extraordinary achievement for an unaccompanied vocal group. It included their version of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, which was a hit in 1995 when it was used as England’s theme song in the Rugby World Cup campaign.
Other attempts to bring the group to a mass market were not always so successful. The Chillout Sessions in 2002 matched their harmony singing against synth lines and drum’n’bass, and made them sound more ordinary than before. They continued to experiment, and their extensive output included No Boundaries (2005), in which they collaborated with the strings of the English Chamber Orchestra for a set that matched Shabalala’s songs against work by Bach, Mozart and Schubert. Long Walk to Freedom (2006) included collaborations with western stars including Emmylou Harris and Natalie Merchant. Songs From a Zulu Farm (2010) marked a return to Shabalala’s roots with songs inspired by his early life.
With Ladysmith, Shabalala performed at stadiums, concert halls, clubs – and major political and sporting events. He sang for the Queen (and Mandela) at the Albert Hall in London in 1996, and was invited to the golden jubilee concert for the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2002. The group also appeared at the closing ceremony of the 2010 Fifa World Cup in Johannesburg.
After he stopped performing with Ladysmith, Shabalala continued to take a close interest in their activities; the group are scheduled to return to the UK in June for a tour celebrating his life and music.
Shabalala’s first wife, Nellie, was killed in a shooting incident near Durban in 2002, in which Shabalala was injured as he chased the gunman.
He is survived by his second wife, Thokozile Maduna, and by five sons and a daughter.
• Joseph Shabalala (Bhekizizwe Joseph Siphatimandia Mxoveni Mshengu Bigboy Shabalala), singer, composer and choir leader, born 28 August 1941; died 11 February 2020