Joseph Shabalala, founder and leader of the long-running South African men’s choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo, has died. The BBC reports that Shabalala died this morning in a hospital in the South African city of Pretoria. No cause of death has been revealed. Shabalala was 78.
Shabalala was born on a farm near the South African town of Ladysmith. He left school at 12, after his father’s death, to work for his family. While working in a factory in Durban, Shabalala began to sing and play guitar in a local group called the Durban Choir. After discovering the Zulu singing style of isicathamiya and having a series of dreams, Shabalala formed Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 1964 — naming the group after his hometown, the strongest oxen on his farm, and an axe.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo began performing at area weddings and in isicathamiya competitions. After a radio performance, the group signed to a South African label and released their debut album Amabutho; it was the first album by black South African musicians to go gold in South Africa. In the ’70s and early ’80s, the group released more albums and toured Europe. In 1986, Paul Simon collaborated with the group on a few songs from his hugely popular album Graceland; Shabalala co-wrote the song “Homeless” with Simon. Ladysmith Black Mambazo performed with Simon around the world, including on Saturday Night Live. Starting with Shaka Zulu in 1987, Simon produced three of the group’s albums.
After their Simon collaborations, Ladysmith Black Mambazo became an international sensation. They won five Grammys. They appeared in Michael Jackson’s film Moonwalker and in the opening scene of Coming To America. After apartheid ended in South Africa, Nelson Mandela named them South African cultural ambassadors. For decades now, they’ve been a touring institution, but they’ve also suffered enormous losses. Shabalala’s brother and bandmate Headman was killed by an off-duty security guard in 1991, and his wife Nellie was murdered in 2002. Shabalala retired from touring in 2014.
Below, watch some videos of Ladysmith Black Mambazo performing: