Joseph Shabalala, Ladysmith Black Mambazo founder, dies aged 78

South African government pays tribute to singer whose group gained worldwide fame after collaborating for Paul Simon’s Graceland

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.

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 Mandelato 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”.

10 comments

  • Kondjeni Ntinda
    Kondjeni Ntinda Windhoek, Namibia
    The sweet sounds of Ladysmith Black Mambazo was instantly recognisable. An African music sensation that captivated the world. Rest in Peace Tata Joseph Shabalala. Legendary.

    The sweet sounds of Ladysmith Black Mambazo was instantly recognisable. An African music sensation that captivated the world. Rest in Peace Tata Joseph Shabalala. Legendary.

  • Christine
    Christine Wisconsin
    My deepest sympathy to Joseph's family during this time of grief. He touched countless hearts with his music. Though he walked through darkness, he is now walking in perfect peace, where there is no more night, all because he believed his living Savior.

    My deepest sympathy to Joseph's family during this time of grief. He touched countless hearts with his music. Though he walked through darkness, he is now walking in perfect peace, where there is no more night, all because he believed his living Savior.

  • Anne Gieg
    Anne Gieg Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
    Remember Ladysmith Black Mambaso Tour when in Canada. Rest in peace Joseph Tshabalalah. Your music will live on forever. An ex Kwa-Zulu Natal Child. You are in heaven with. Many African great legends like Johnny Clegg of Savukah Mama Themba etc

    Remember Ladysmith Black Mambaso Tour when in Canada. Rest in peace Joseph Tshabalalah. Your music will live on forever. An ex Kwa-Zulu Natal Child. You are in heaven with. Many African great legends like Johnny Clegg of Savukah Mama Themba etc

  • Hakeem
    Hakeem United Kingdom
    I want the correct audio of the albums Nqonqotha Mfana Isicathamiya Remastered

    I want the correct audio of the albums Nqonqotha Mfana Isicathamiya Remastered

  • Alice El
    Alice El United States of America
    I am just now finding this amazing group. Their voices are soothing and celestial. How truly wonderful they are.

    I am just now finding this amazing group. Their voices are soothing and celestial. How truly wonderful they are.

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  • Hakeem
    Hakeem United Kingdom
    The older members who are no longer in mambazo are Milton Mazibuko Ngali Mazibuko Joseph Shabalala Headman Shabalala Enoch Shabalala Walter Malinga Amos Mncube Funokwakhe Mazibuko Ben Shabalala Russell Mthembu Fikile Groonwell Khumalo Jockey Shabalala Groonwell Khumalo Patrick Zondo Jabulani Dubazana Geophrey Mdletshe Inos Phungula. Milton Mazibuko passed away in 1980 after the nqonqotha mfana album. Ngali Mazibuko retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 1974 after the umama lo album. Joseph Shabalala passed away on the 11th of February 2020. Headman Shabalala passed away in 1991. Enoch Shabalala passed away on the 21st of May 2021. Walter Malinga retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 1972 after the imbongi album. Amos Mncube retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 1974 after the umama lo album. Funokwakhe Mazibuko retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 1980 after the nqonqotha mfana album. Ben Shabalala passed away in 2004. Russell Mthembu retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 2015. Fikile Groonwell Khumalo retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 1980 after the nqonqotha mfana album. Jockey Shabalala passed away in 2006. Groonwell Khumalo retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 1976 after the phezulu emafini album. Patrick Zondo retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 1980 after the nqonqotha mfana album . Jabulani Dubazana retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 2005 after the album music has no boundaries. Geophrey Mdletshe retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 1990 after the inkanyezi nezazi album. Inos Phungula retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 1998 after the album heavenly.

    The older members who are no longer in mambazo are Milton Mazibuko Ngali Mazibuko Joseph Shabalala Headman Shabalala Enoch Shabalala Walter Malinga Amos Mncube Funokwakhe Mazibuko Ben Shabalala Russell Mthembu Fikile Groonwell Khumalo Jockey Shabalala Groonwell Khumalo Patrick Zondo Jabulani Dubazana Geophrey Mdletshe Inos Phungula. Milton Mazibuko passed away in 1980 after the nqonqotha mfana album. Ngali Mazibuko retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 1974 after the umama lo album. Joseph Shabalala passed away on the 11th of February 2020. Headman Shabalala passed away in 1991. Enoch Shabalala passed away on the 21st of May 2021. Walter Malinga retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 1972 after the imbongi album. Amos Mncube retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 1974 after the umama lo album. Funokwakhe Mazibuko retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 1980 after the nqonqotha mfana album. Ben Shabalala passed away in 2004. Russell Mthembu retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 2015. Fikile Groonwell Khumalo retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 1980 after the nqonqotha mfana album. Jockey Shabalala passed away in 2006. Groonwell Khumalo retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 1976 after the phezulu emafini album. Patrick Zondo retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 1980 after the nqonqotha mfana album . Jabulani Dubazana retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 2005 after the album music has no boundaries. Geophrey Mdletshe retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 1990 after the inkanyezi nezazi album. Inos Phungula retired from ladysmith black mambazo in 1998 after the album heavenly.

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