While the cadences of his life have given way to the inevitable finality of existence, Joseph Shabalala’s life work is immutable. The founding member and musical director of iconic isicathamiya group Ladysmith Black Mambazo died on Tuesday 11 February in Pretoria, at the age of 78.
With profound acclaim and numerous local and international awards, including 17 Grammy Award nominations and five wins, Shabalala leveraged his national and global celebrity status to focus attention on, preserve, teach and take seriously an art form that is historically situated in and birthed by our particular context. This is why the group refers to him as “our Founder, our Teacher and most importantly, our Father”, in their online tribute.
Continuing and cultivating the vital cultural legacy of music that is central to working-class and migrant life in South Africa, Shabalala’s influence and the work of Ladysmith Black Mambazo endures in the thriving world of isicathamiya.
The word “isicathamiya” is derived from the Zulu word cathama, meaning to walk or tread on one’s toes lightly. In music, isicathamiya as an art form becomes the realisation of this movement through sound. Typically, the choral ensembles range in size from four to more than 20 singers performing in call and response. Having been around for almost a century, isicathamiya was popularised by euphonious Zulu migrant workers who suffered dehumanisation and dislocation from their homes and communities.
Speaking previously to New Frame, Shabalala’s son Thulani – who forms part of the current line-up of Ladysmith Black Mambazo – described how isicathamiya has always been peaceful, a gentle reprieve to the hard stomps of gumboot dancing. The two existing alongside each other give full breadth to the realities of black migrant life.
“The music has had a profound impact on our lineage. We inherited isicathamiya from our great grandfathers, who passed it on to our grandparents and, finally, we inherited the musical tradition from our own father,” he said fondly. As The New York Times reports, those who survive Shabalala “include his wife, Thokozile Shabalala, two daughters”, seven sons “and 36 grandchildren”. We honour his life, this rich inheritance and the profound impact of his work in this photo essay by photojournalists Rafs Mayet and Rajesh Jantilal.