In Pictures | Joseph Shabalala remembered

The founder of the Grammy Award-winning Ladysmith Black Mambazo has died at the age of 78, leaving a continued and rich legacy in isicathamiya choral singing.

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. 

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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.

4 January 2009: Joseph Shabalala performs at the Onkweni Royal Festival in Ulundi, north of Durban. (Photograph by Rajesh Jantilal)
30 September 2009: Ladysmith Black Mambazo making a music video in Durban. Shabalala started as a teenager with the Durban Choir and Highlanders groups. He formed Ezimnyama in 1959, which later became Ladysmith Black Mambazo. (Photograph by Rajesh Jantilal)
August 1990: Joseph Shabalala leads Ladysmith Black Mambazo at the Rainbow Restaurant and Jazz Club in Pinetown. This followed their first tour in the United States with Paul Simon, when they collaborated on his 1986 album Graceland, co-writing the song Homeless, which has a melody based on a Zulu wedding song. (Photograph by Rafs Mayet)
August 1990: Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs at the Rainbow Restaurant and Jazz Club in Pinetown. (Photograph by Rafs Mayet)
26 March 2009: Joseph Shabalala with one of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Grammy Awards at Durban International Airport. The group has been nominated for 17 Grammy Awards and won five, most recently for Best World Music Album in 2017. Raise Your Spirit Higher won the Best Traditional World Music Album in 2004, the group’s second Grammy. (Photograph by Rajesh Jantilal)
6 September 2007: Joseph Shabalala on stage at a concert in Durban. Ladysmith Black Mambazo is an isicathamiya choir, traditionally all male, in which members harmonise a cappella songs. (Photograph by Rajesh Jantilal)
9 November 2014: Ladysmith Black Mambazo performing with South African musician Johnny Clegg at an Old Mutual Music at the Lake Concert at the Durban Botanic Gardens. (Photograph by Rajesh Jantilal)
9 November 2014: (From left) Joseph Shabalala and Johnny Clegg both drew inspiration from traditional Zulu music. (Photograph by Rajesh Jantilal)
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