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Albert Mazibuko, working in an asbestos-making factory to try and escape poverty, had a dream.

The young Mazibuko had a singing group of his own.

But he was most interested in a similar singing group from a few towns over: Ladysmith Black Mambazo, founded by Joseph Shabalala in 1960.

“‘When I grow up, I will go and join him,’” Mazibuko remembers telling all of his friends.

In 1969, Shabalala asked him to do just that, and for the past 41 years, Mazibuko has been performing the group’s vocal pop melodies for crowds around the world.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo, now entering its 50th year of performing, will visit the Walton Arts Center on Saturday for a concert that begins at 8 p.m.

The group performs a vocalonly type of native African music called isicathamiya, which finds its origins in workers entertaining themselves after exhausting shifts.

Competitions to determine the best of the local isicathamiya performers solidified Ladysmith’s fate, and it generated the group’s name, too. “Ladysmith” comes from the hometown of many of the performers, “Black” comes as a homage to the black oxen, the strongest animal in the farm fields, and “Mambazo” is the Zulu wordfor ax, which, according to the group, is a reference to how the group chopped through its challengers at contests.

Though the group may have been locally famous, it wasn’t until 1986 that Ladysmithfound international success.

That was when American musician Paul Simon used the vocalists extensively for his album “Graceland,” which went on to be the No. 1 album in the United States and several other countries and earned a Grammy as album of the year.

Ladysmith has recorded nearly 30 albums in the past 50 years, earning plenty of awards on its own. The album “Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu,” for instance, was honored with a 2009 Grammy as the Best Traditional World Music recording.

Although the harmonies and vocal stylings of the group are largely intact after 50 years, Mazibuko, interviewed by phone while at his home in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, knows that the world around him is different.

A recent tour of Cape Town, South Africa, reminded Mazibuko of that. In the early days of the group, apartheid mandated where he and his bandmates could go and what they could do.

“It is like visiting a museum,” Mazibuko says. “There are places that were forbidden.

We weren’t allowed to drive around it even.”

That the group’s music has not only survived but prospered is a testament to Shabalala’s vision and the strength of the message.

“It shows that, from the beginning, our music has been very beautiful and very challenging.”

The 50th anniversary tour that brings the group to Northwest Arkansas is a celebration, Mazibuko says.

Tunes from all decades of the band’s career will be shared with the crowd, as will the choreographed movements that accompany the songs. About 90 percent of the time the group is singing, the musicians are moving along with the rhythm, Mazibuko says.

While he admits that he’s not as young as he once was, Mazibuko says the performances are as spirited as they ever were.

“When you perform a song, the energy builds up, and so you have to wind down,” he says. “You only feel tired if you have a day off.”

Besides, Mazibuko and his fellow vocalists have plenty to dance and sing about. It’s their 50th anniversary, after all, and he is still living his dream.

“We have a feeling of celebrating because we have so much. We are enjoying the freedom that we have, and the opportunities.”

Whats Up, Pages 9 on 02/19/2010

Print Headline: 50 And Still Flourishing

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