GET HAPPY: Joseph Shabalala (third from left) had a dream of joy.
The Romantic notion of artistic merit is that one must plumb the depths of despair to emerge with great work — and that the finest triumphs are often born of the direst misery. But when you're surrounded by that misery, you may very well dream of a music that transcends it — that creates in its place something more like joy. Joseph Shabalala had that dream ("an actual dream, while I was asleep") in 1964 in Ladysmith, South Africa, and it moved him to round up family, neighbors, and friends to form a choir that might somehow re-create the music of his dreams.
"We are often asked, 'Why do you sing such happy music when there is fighting and violence around you?' " I'm speaking with Albert Mazibuko, who has sung and performed with the group since 1969, experiencing not only the misery and tragedy of growing up in apartheid-era South Africa but, now, the glories of worldwide recognition. "Our answer is this: you can't put out fire with fire — you need water. We hope that the joy in our music will help people see clearly, and think clearly." His smile can be heard on the phone across thousands of miles.
If you've heard of Ladysmith Black Mambazo (whom World Music is bringing to Harvard's Sanders Theatre this Saturday), it's likely thanks to Paul Simon, who in 1986 collaborated with the group on his smash Graceland album. Shortly after the demise of apartheid and his release from Robben Island, Nelson Mandela termed LBM "cultural ambassadors" for South Africa — a responsibility that the group have carried to this day, touring the globe eight or nine months of each year.
Their music adheres to the isicathamiya style, in which a large a cappella men's choir sings rhythmic chants with accompanying dances; rather than rowdy or loud, the effect is soothing and sweet. "This style of music was the kind sung by my father and grandfather and people their age," Mazibuko tells me. "Back then, they worked in the mines, and when they would sing and dance while working, they were concerned that if they danced too hard, the floors would shake! So they sang softly and treaded softly, and the result was soothing music, soothing voices."
The music may be peaceful, but LBM's impact on what is now known (for better or worse) as world music has been powerful. To Mazibuko, the soft approach makes the message that much more seductive. "If you are shouting at someone, it is hard for them to listen. We decided early on to present our message in a sweet way, in the softness of our voices. When we began, we would travel all over, far from home — so we had a large group, in part for safety! But our large numbers allow us to have many strong voices, and having all of those voices really makes the effect so glorious."
Given their deep bench and long history, it's no surprise to find that the LBM line-up revolves and fluctuates. (There'll be nine singers at Sanders.) The project has always been more about the idea and the mission than about individual members' egos — but that's not to say there's no satisfaction along the way. "I have dedicated my life to this music," says Mazibuko. "I'm going to sing this music until I die! When I dream, I'm dreaming about this music. And when I wake, I want to sing and make more!"
LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO | Sanders Theatre, 45 Quincy St, Cambridge | February 6 at 8 pm | $28-$40 | 617.876.4275 or www.worldmusic.org