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Tribute to Joseph Shabalala

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Beneath the giraffe’s head of the Southern Cross he had a strange dream, and it was the sound of the choir in the dream that told him he should pass the message on to the people, for the music he heard in the dream was that of peace for all nations. This was in the late 1950’s, and Joseph Shabalala was one of the many migrant labourers from the homelands of South and Southern Africa.

Sardined in the cramped confines of the Johannesburg mining camps with the other men from different clans and ethnic groups from across the south of Africa, the only avenue left for them to beat the blues was found in playing Moraba-raba, or in singing the songs of home. For Bab’ Joseph and company forming singing groups and choirs or bands became the main pastime, with the many singing groups often competing in the mine halls or halls in the townships and locations surrounding the mine camps.

Here they would sing the songs of home following the Isicathamiya genre of traditional Zulu music. An a capella type of music, the voices of the men singing in harmonious chorus would remind the men of the mountains and hills of home, lonely as they were in the mining camps, away from their families and children. The songs Bab’ Joseph had heard in a choir in a dream would go on to soothe the hearts and the minds of migrant labourers pining for the hills of home.

I find it hard to alienate Bab’ Joseph Shabalala’s music from that of Ntate Letsema Matšela, for both of them sang the kind of music that united all nations divided by colonialism and racial segregation. The song of these mystics not only served to be the voice of their people, it also served to ensure that we somehow kept well in touch with the music and the lore of our forefathers.

Isicathamiya and Mokorotlo are not different in terms of their composition, and a listen to any of these two genres from two different tribes leaves the listener mesmerised. Both these greats are now gone, but their legacy shall live on until the end of time, that is if we carry it on as they did, and Bab’ Joseph made sure to have his sons keep his place in the now legendary Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

It is the call of the swarm of honey bees that graced the soundtrack to an adaptation of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country that got me hooked on the music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo as my forebears had been at the mine camps where they worked more than half a year without seeing their families.

Joseph Shabalala was born on August 28, 1941 and died on the 11th of February 2020, at the age of 78. Born Bhekizizwe Joseph Siphatimandla Mxoveni Mshengu Bigboy Shabalala, the South African singer and musician was the founder and musical director of the choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. He was born in the town of Ladysmith (eMnambithi district) in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa. His parents, Jonathan Mluwane Shabalala and Nomandla Elina Shabalala, raised Joseph and his six siblings on a white-owned farm called Tugela. His father died in the late 1940s; Joseph, being the eldest, had to take care of the family. He left the farm, however, in 1958 to search for work in the nearby city of Durban.

In 1958, Joseph discovered an isicathamiya group, The Highlanders, led by his hero Galiyane Hlatshwayo. This was the man who encouraged Joseph to use his voice to deliver messages of hope. Joseph formed his own group the following year 1959, Ezimnyama (“The Black Ones”). Joseph Shabalala formed Ladysmith Black Mambazo because of a series of dreams he had in 1964, in which he heard certain isicathamiya harmonies (isicathamiya being the traditional music of the Zulu people).

He then renamed them Ladysmith Black Mambazo, “Mambazo” meaning axe, referring to how the group chopped down the other choirs by winning almost every time.

Mambazo started singing at wedding ceremonies and other gatherings, then Shabalala entered them into isicathamiya competitions. The group had matured into a force to be reckoned with and were described as ‘so good’ that they were eventually forbidden to enter the competitions at the town halls and various mine camps. They were however welcomed to entertain at the concerts as guests.

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.

Joseph’s Black Mambazo got recognised as an isicathamiya group in 1964 and had been singing together since the late 1950s, but their first album, Amabutho, was only released in 1973. The album, along with many other releases by the group, received gold disc certification. After local radio airplay (on the SABC. station Radio Zulu), Joseph accepted a recording contract that was offered in 1972 by Gallo Music producer West Nkosi. The group sold over 40 000 copies of their first album and continued to do so through other recordings.

From the series of recurring dreams Joseph Shabalala had over a period of six months featuring a choir singing in perfect harmony in 1964, one would not have thought that the group would reach the stratospheric heights they did in music circles. Shabalala described what he heard in the dream as a beautiful sound, and one not yet achieved by any group of the time.

This is what led to his reforming the group, bringing on board newer (younger) relatives but keeping the group name. He strove to teach them the harmonies from his dreams, creating what was to become a signature tune for the group: “Nomathemba” (a girl’s name, meaning “hope”). After deciding that this group well replicated the beautiful, soft sounds from his dreams, Shabalala entered the group into isicathamiya competitions, held on Saturday nights in the halls of hostels in Durban and Johannesburg.

The three elements of the new name were: the hometown of Shabalala’s family, Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal; the black ox, considered to be the strongest farm animal; and mambazo, which means “axe” in isi-Zulu, and is symbolic of the choir’s ability to “chop down” the competition.

In 1967, the group began to make recordings for the SABC station Radio Zulu, appearing in DJ Alexius Buthelezi’s popular Cothoza Mfana programme, which put the music of several local choirs in the spotlight. Their success was so great that music producers began enticing the group to sign a recording contract.

In 1972 the group signed with Gallo Record Company under producer West Nkosi at the organisation’s African music division, Mavuthela Music Company (Nkosi was also well known in South Africa as a saxophone jive star). Ladysmith Black Mambazo released their first album the following year, Amabutho, which received gold status and was the first album by a black musician or group in South Africa to do so. Their subsequent albums also received gold or platinum certification. With the release of their second album, they had become professional singers.

The group saw many changes; whereas the early line-ups were formed of a few Shabalalas and two (Funokwakhe and Joseph) Mazibukos, the group largely included members unrelated to Joseph. Joseph Shabalala’s cousin Mdletshe Albert Mazibuko (the eldest of the six brothers) joined Mambazo in 1969 as a tenor voice, with his younger brother Milton as an alto voice. Albert is the longest remaining member of Ladysmith Black Mambazo aside from Joseph Shabalala and has been a full-time member of the group since 1973.

After the killing of his brother Milton in 1980 Albert remained in the line-up, by which time his brothers Funokwakhe and Joseph Mazibuko had left, and his youngest brother Abednego had joined.
In 1976, Shabalala converted to Christianity and a host of religious material now entered the group’s repertoire.

Mambazo’s first religious album, Ukukhanya Kwelanga, was released soon afterwards. It earned a double platinum disc award, and the group’s repertoire came to be dominated by hymns, mostly Methodist. Their 1977 LP Ukusindiswa became one of their most popular religious albums, selling double gold discs within three weeks of release.

By 1981, the group’s popularity was such that the apartheid government allowed the members to travel to Cologne, Germany, as part of a South African folk music festival. The group toured West Germany and appeared on television, and learned some of the German language; for the group’s 1981 album Phansi Emgodini, Shabalala composed a song entitled “Wir Grüssen Euch Alle” (“We greet you all”).

The following year, the group travelled back to Germany to appear on a televised quiz programme, bringing about requests for more live appearances. A track by the group also appeared on the groundbreaking British compilation album The Indestructible Beat of Soweto.

In 1985, Paul Simon travelled to South Africa in the hope of collaborating with African musicians for his Graceland album. Simon contacted Shabalala and conversed with him in person — after much discussion and excitement, the group travelled to London to record with Simon.

The first recording was “Homeless” — the music and chorus were composed by Simon, with Shabalala composing the Zulu introduction and main (non-English) body of the song. They also sang on the song “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “You Can Call Me Al”. Simon brought the group to New York City to perform on Saturday Night Live and they performed “Diamonds…” prior to the album or song being released.

Graceland was released in late 1986, and although both Joseph Shabalala and Paul Simon were accused of breaking the cultural boycott of South Africa, the album became a huge success and sold 16 million copies and further boosted Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s international image. This also paved the way for other African acts such as Stimela and Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens to gain popularity among Western audiences.

After Graceland, Simon acted as producer for their first album for US Release on Warner Brothers Records Shaka Zulu (1987). Shaka Zulu won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Recording in 1988. Two more records were recorded for Warner Brothers Records in the US Journey of Dreams (1988) and Two Worlds, One Heart (1990). On the latter album, the group recorded with The Winans, Julia Fordham and George Clinton among other then-popular artists.

The success of the Graceland recording and subsequent concert tours led to a strong touring life for the group that continues to this day. Ladysmith Black Mambazo perform concert tours around the world for six or more months every year.

In 1988, Ladysmith Black Mambazo appeared in Michael Jackson’s movie Moonwalker, where they performed “The Moon Is Walking” (an abridged version of the song “Lindelani”, which appears on Journey of Dreams) over the end credits. Ladysmith Black Mambazo was also featured in the Sesame Street song “Put Down the Duckie”, as well as “The African Alphabet”.

In 1988, Ladysmith Black Mambazo sang “Mbube” during the opening sequence of the Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America, but the song was not released on the soundtrack. On 10 December 1991, Shabalala’s brother and one of the bass members in the group, Headman Shabalala, was shot and killed by Sean Nicholas, a white off-duty security guard. Headman’s death was followed by the retirement of two members in 1993, and Shabalala recruited three of his sons into the group.

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 walked the music he sang, he followed the dream as he had seen and heard in his sleep, and from this shared a type of music never before heard. We are all the merrier from what he shared with us and shall remain forever grateful that we heard him sing melodies from the land of dreams. There is a lot we could say of his life, but those such as he was need to be honoured in few words, lest we taint the beautiful music he left us with our loquacity. Hamba kahle baba.

Ts’episo Mothibi

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We need a coordinated approach on youth challenges

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For a number of good reasons, all of us are concerned about problems that face Lesotho’s young people, particularly youth unemployment, and the increasing tendency towards anti-social behaviour among sections of Lesotho youth including their increasing admiration for criminality.

Not only do members of such groups admire criminality and actually commit crimes but they commit crimes without much care as to the harm and other costs that their actions inflict on immediate victims and on society-at-large.

Evidence of public concern about these problems includes the fact that within society individuals, groups and public and private institutions have all expressed concerns over problems facing the youth, with some of these parties making attempts to come up with ideas and measures to assist.

However, a number of problems seem to be emerging on, at least, three fronts. Firstly, a seeming lack of coordination in addressing problems that face young people. Secondly, lack of clarity on questions of whether (a) parties that seek to assist are basing their interventions on credibly identified sources of problems that face young people; and (b) whether any credible assessments are made to ensure that interventions such parties are proposing and implementing have potential to solve problems that face Lesotho’s young people.

There are many examples of what may seem to us, members of the general public, to be lack of coordination in approaches to solve problems facing young people. One such example may be sufficient. On January 8, 2024, Lesotho TV broadcast a statement in which the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) authorities announced establishment of some army facility where Basotho young people would be taught some values, including patriotism.

The very next day, on January 9, 2024, Lesotho TV broadcast another statement, this time by the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) authorities, announcing the LMPS’s plan to establish a police facility at which young people would be taught anti-crime and other values. In their essence, the LMPS’s plan sounded not totally dissimilar to LDF’s.
Apart from the LDF and LMPS’s plans for Lesotho’s youth, there are also public and private sector initiatives to nurture and support entrepreneurial talents of Lesotho’s youth with a view, among others, to fight youth unemployment and develop the country’s private sector.

Politicians have also been seen to sponsor football games for young people in their constituencies with a view, they say, to keep young people from crime and narcotics. These events cannot be criticised too much but given that they are one, or two-day events that take place during specific times, they look more like publicity stunts.

National sports federations are now complaining that politicians who sponsor these events put too much stress on sports as a means to fight crime. What federations want is that, if politicians want to help, they should stress the importance of sports as careers, and sponsor young people to develop their sporting talents accordingly.

Amidst expressions of concerns and various parties’ attempts to address problems facing Lesotho youth, public authorities that we have not heard from, or from who we do not hear enough, are those charged with responsibilities over precisely problems facing young people; that is, authorities at the Ministry of Youth.

Admittedly, we do not know if the initiatives of the LDF, LMPS, and others are carried out in consultation with or with the blessing of the Ministry of Youth.

The worry ought to be not only whether interventions of the LDF, LMPS, and others have the blessings of the Ministry of Youth. Instead, the worry should extend to the question of whether the Ministry has any national plan to address problems facing young people. And, if such a plan exists, we would expect that it identifies the LDF and LMPS as places where young place can be coached; and initiatives of these and other institutions would align with such a plan.

Without an identification of the army and the police as implementing agencies of the Ministry’s plan, and without the army and police’s initiatives alignment with the Ministry’s plan, at least two things are likely to result: duplication of effort — as seems to be the case with the LDF and LPMS plans; or, at worst, LDF and LMPS plans might contradict and undermine national plans entrusted to the Ministry of Youth.

In the worst case scenario that a national plan does not exist, we face the danger that anybody wishing to address problems facing Lesotho’s young people can do so, basing herself, or himself on a personal or group perception, and implementing plans and solutions based on such perception.

As in the case of too many people stirring the same cooking pot without coordination, undesirable consequences can be expected from a situation where just about anybody can apply a solution to a public problem.

As hinted above, a good national plan aimed at addressing problems that face Lesotho’s young people would have two characteristics, at least. First, it would be based on our assertion of the kind of society we want to be; an investigation of problems that stand in the way of achieving such a society; how such problems can be overcome, say, through school curricula; and how, in general, from Early Childhood Care & Development (ECCD), young people can be brought up and socialised in ways that ensure they will be useful members of a society we wish to be.

Any action that is not based on an investigation of the problems that stand in the way of achieving a society we want to be has little chances of success. Such action would be based on some understanding that the young who are anti-social, unpatriotic and criminals are naturally bad people.

It is, of course, not as simple as that. For example, one possible explanation for the absence of patriotism among young people may have something to do with socio-economic inequality in Lesotho: those who are closed out of, and excluded from, benefiting from Lesotho’s wealth and power cannot be expected to be patriots.

A second characteristic of a plan aimed at addressing problems that face Lesotho’s young people is that, such a plan should identify and/or establish institutions designed — and with appropriate skills — to implement ideas and proposals that come out of credible investigations.

It is unclear whether the LDF and LMPS plans have resulted from something like considerations suggested above. While it is admitted that these institutions’ initiatives are limited to addressing problems of lack of patriotism and criminality among the young people, one clear problem with their plans and solutions is that, it might be the case that they are catching young people a little late, when schooling and general socialisation have already entrenched anti-social values that we see among sections of young people; namely, individualism and the inability to think of others.

In one word, these institutions catch these young people when tendencies towards criminality, anti-social behaviour, and lack of patriotism might have already hardened.
Perhaps the biggest hope we should have is that the army and the police will have full complement of resources necessary for providing full and wholesome mentoring to young people who undergo army and police mentoring.

Short of adequate resources necessary for achieving what the army and the police have in mind, we might end up with cohorts of young people with a faulty army and police culture that may come back to haunt us. Inserting a faulty army culture among a section of young people brought us bitter results in the 1970s and 1980s that should not be repeated.

To conclude, no one can argue against all of us being concerned with problems of youth unemployment; increasing tendencies of young people’s admiration of criminality and their participation in crime. And no one can argue against all of us coming up with ideas and proposals of how to address these problems.

However, our concerns and proposals ought to be based on:
a nationally-agreed assertion of society we want to be;
a credible investigation of difficulties that stand in the way of us becoming society we want to be;

and coordination of proposals and ideas aimed at becoming society we want to be.

As with other specific instances of socio-economic development in Lesotho, problems facing the country’s young people cry out for the long-neglected establishment of the National Planning Board, as prescribed in Section 105 of the Constitution of Lesotho.

Prof Motlatsi Thabane

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Insight

Call that a muffin?

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In Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Canterville Ghost” (1887) one of the characters says about the British, “We have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” Between American English and British English there are many, many differences. Which is not to say that either American or British English are standardised; there are multiple varieties within each. As a south-western Brit I can find it difficult to fully understand what someone from Liverpool or Newcastle is saying.

I remember one year during the NUL’s International Theatre for Development project we had a student from the islands of Scotland. She was brilliant and hard-working and full of good ideas — if only one could understand the ideas when she introduced them. The NUL students grouped together and asked me: “Chris, can you translate what Kirsty is saying for us?” and I replied: “I’m as lost as you are.”

Between American and British English it’s not just a matter of pronunciation but also of vocabulary (I’ll be coming to muffins — see the title of this piece — in a while) and spelling.
In the biographical film Prick Up Your Ears British, dramatist Joe Orton shares a room with Ken Halliwell and they decide to write a novel together. Ken asks Joe “can you spell?” and Joe replies “yes, but not accurately.”

This is hardly a surprise, given that he’s a Brit. The American spelling system is far more regular and rational than the British. (Readers with laptops will have noticed that your spell-check gives the option of British or American spelling, but that doesn’t help you as in Lesotho the British system is used, so for the time being you’re stuck with it).

I mean, what can you say about a spelling system where “plough” rhymes with “now”, but “tough” rhymes with “stuff”– and “now” doesn’t rhyme with “low.” Yipes (as the Americans say). When I was lecturing in Lesotho and in Nigeria and marking assignments I was always very lenient over spelling, because I know what a mountain it is to climb (the latter word rhyming with “time”, of course).

Then there is the matter of vocabulary or denotation (a term I hope readers remember from a few weeks back). There are many examples of things that are denoted by different words in British and American English: lift / elevator; pavement / sidewalk; windscreen / windshield; petrol / gas; cinema / movie theater (and look at the American spelling of (Brit) “theatre”– a lot easier). And some of these reflect our different histories.

For example, there’s a vegetable, a kind of small marrow, the British call it a courgette (one of my favourite vegetables, in case any of you are planning to invite me for dinner). That’s a word that British English has borrowed directly from French — that is, a loan word (I’m not sure we plan to give it back).

The Americans on the other hand call it a zucchini, a loan word from Italian, which I guess reflects the size and influence of the Italian community in the USA. (Speaking of vegetables, I can’t give you an explanation for why the Brits call an aubergine an aubergine — another loan word from French — but the Americans call it an egg-plant).

Next week I’ll get around to muffins — a sore point — and I’ll move on to differences between English and French and between Sesotho and Setswana. Bet you can’t wait.

Chris Dunton is a former Professor of English and Dean of Humanities at the National University of Lesotho.

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Insight

Lessons from Israel: Part 3

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I shall round off my account of my 1995 trip to Israel by putting on my tour guide cap. Staying in Tel Aviv, most days were fully taken up by the conference, which was my reason for being there. Tel Aviv in July is scorchingly hot, so there were walks along the beach only before breakfast and after sunset. I did take a little time off to go with South African author Stephen Gray to an art gallery that had a painting he wanted to see (a portrait by Modigliani of Beatrice Hastings, whose biography Stephen was then writing).

I wasn’t especially keen on the hotel restaurant, where dinner comprised meat served by the ton (surprisingly little fish, given that we were on the coast. By contrast, I had always been surprised and happy that Maseru restaurants are so good on fish, despite the fact that Lesotho isn’t exactly maritime). But I discovered a little Russian Jewish restaurant that offered Beluga caviar at an amazingly cheap price. I suspect it had fallen off the back of a lorry, as we say in the UK — i.e. that it was contraband, acquired illegally. I just blinked innocently and enjoyed myself. I can’t think of a more delicious way of starting a meal than with caviar, freshly-made blinis and a large glass of deeply chilled Wyberowa vodka — no ice, please. (I only say all this to show you what a very cosmopolitan chap I am).

The conference ran to a packed schedule and we worked hard (no, really). Half-way through we were given a day off and taken to Jerusalem. On arrival I teamed up with an old Nigerian friend and a friend of his from Senegal and we took ourselves first to the Dome of the Rock, the main mosque, which is splendid and radiant (wow, the mosaics!) Then we saw the Wailing Wall.

Then we trudged up the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Via marks the route along which Christ was forced to carry his cross on the way to his crucifixion (dolorosa means something like “of miseries”). I had expected it to be lined with sculptures showing the Stations of the Cross (rather like the lovely ones at Fatima, near Ramabanta).

Instead it was one tourist gift shop after another. Here I came across one of the most repugnant things I’ve seen in my life. Proudly displayed for sale, a wall clock with the face adorned with the image of the head of Christ, the two clock hands protruding from his nose.

At the top of the Via Dolorosa, the fourth century Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in the world for Christians, which is breathtakingly beautiful. The interior is (not visibly) divided into sections, the upkeep of each of which is the responsibility of one of the major denominations: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Greek Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, and so on. I had had the impression this was an arrangement worked out under the colonial regime of British Palestine, but Google tells me it dates back to the Status Quo of 1757.

My companions had done their homework and suggested we head first for the roof, which had been allocated to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (dare one possibly suggest a tinge of racism in this marginalisation?). There we found a cluster of monkish cells, each inhabited by an elderly Ethiopian monk, at least two of whom spoke English or French. They were delighted to see us, and utterly sweet, hospitable, and in their accounts of their pastoral work spellbinding.

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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