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Joseph Shabalala & the global phenomenon of Ladysmith Black Mambazo

As a young farmboy turned factory worker, Joseph Shabalala assembled the group in the early 1960s with the aim of preserving musical heritage as well as providing entertainment.

Joseph Shabalala, the founder of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, at a press conference on 10 July 2010 at Soccer City Stadium in Soweto on the eve of the 2010 Football World Cup final between the Netherlands and Spain. Picture: AFP

JOHANNESBURG - Joseph Shabalala died on Tuesday at the age of 78 and is being remembered for creating Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the global phenomenon which won multiple Grammys and performed for royalty and presidents alike and whose music made it all the way to Hollywood.

Shabalala died at a Pretoria hospital following complications from back surgery that left him wheelchair-bound, according to local media.

Shabalala assembled the group in the early 1960s when he was a young farmboy turned factory worker.

According to the group's website, he took the name Ladysmith from his hometown in KwaZulu-Natal. The word black was a "reference to the oxen, the strongest of all farm animals, Joseph's way of honoring his early life on his family's farm. Mambazo is the Zulu word for chopping axe, a symbol of the group’s vocal strength".

A radio broadcast in 1970 opened the door to their first record contract, which they describe as "the beginning of an ambitious discography that currently includes more than sixty albums".

The group says their philosophy in the studio was and continues to be just as much about preservation of musical heritage as it is about entertainment.

"The group borrows heavily from a traditional music called isicathamiya, which developed in the mines of South Africa, where black workers were taken by rail to work far away from their homes and their families. Poorly housed and paid worse, the mine workers would entertain themselves after a six-day week by singing songs into the wee hours on Sunday morning. When the miners returned to the homelands, this musical tradition returned with them."

The group was popularised abroad by Paul Simon's 1986 Graceland album.

Simon was criticised by some at the time for working with musicians while South Africa was still under apartheid rule.

But his album opened up a global audience to the traditional Zulu harmony-driven acapella and an international following for Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

The group is a decades-old favourite at the Grammys, where it won its fifth award in 2018.

It is currently on a US tour and on hearing the news of Shabalala's passing, the group paid tribute to their 'father'.

"Our Founder, our Teacher and most importantly, our Father left us today for eternal peace," the choir said on social media.

"We celebrate and honor your kind heart and your extraordinary life. Through your music and the millions who you came in contact with, you shall live forever."

Shabalala had retired in 2014 and handed control to the all-male choral group to his four sons.

In 1994 the group performed at the inauguration of South Africa's first black president Nelson Mandela, who was freed from jail exactly 30 years ago on Tuesday.

The choir also performed at Queen Elizabeth II's 92nd birthday in 2018 at a star-studded, Commonwealth-themed charity concert that also featured Tom Jones, Kylie Minogue and Shaggy.

According to the group's website, in addition to their work with Paul Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has recorded with numerous artists from around the world, including Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Sarah McLachlan, Josh Groban, Emmylou Harris and Melissa Etheridge.

Their singing voices can be heard in several films including Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker video and Spike Lee’s Do It A Cappella. They've provided soundtrack material for Disney’s The Lion King II: Simba's Pride, Eddie Murphy’s Coming To America, Marlon Brando’s A Dry White Season, Sean Connery’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, James Earl Jones’ Cry The Beloved Country and Clint Eastwood's Invictus.

A documentary film called On Tip Toe: Gentle Steps to Freedom, The Story Of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, was nominated for an Academy Award. They have appeared on Broadway, nominated for Tony Awards and won a Drama Desk Award.

President Cyril Ramaphosa described Shabalala as a "veteran choral maestro".

"Today the spirit of ...Shabalala is united with that of our great leader, Nelson Mandela, whose release from prison we are commemorating," said Ramaphosa in a tweet.

The opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) 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".

Fans paid tribute on social media.

"The legend has fallen," said one fan on Twitter, and another wrote "Rest in power. Your legacy will live on"

Additional reporting by AFP.