Joseph Shabalala

By Jeremy Miles

IT is little more than two years since Joseph Shabalala, the visionary leader of African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, faced one of the biggest nightmares of his life.

His wife of 30 years Nellie was murdered, gunned down as she walked to church near their home in Durban, South Africa. For a man of peace who has long advocated holding out the hand of friendship to our enemies, it was a testing time.

A lesser spirit would have been consumed with hatred, crippled by thoughts of revenge. But Joseph responded by doing what he has always done... he sang.

At the time he told me: "It was very, very hard. There were times when I thought I would die. I was lost. People were talking but I didn't hear them. But I sang and that gave me power and eventually I managed to lift my spirit."

I caught up with him again a few weeks back when the Ladysmith Black Mambazo tour, which arrives at Lighthouse in Poole on November 4, was travelling through the USA.

Joseph was relaxing in a luxury hotel on the outskirts of Seattle having just flown their from a triumphant first visit to Mexico.

"It was amazing, they really loved our music," he told me.

Spreading a little bit of the magic of his native Zulu music to people of another culture always makes him feel elated.

For Joseph has come a very long way since growing up on a simple family farm outside Durban.

He started singing in the late 1950s but it was to be nearly 30 years before a chance collaboration with Paul Simon on the ground-breaking Graceland album made him and his band international world music stars

These days his world may revolve around aeroplanes, recording studios and international hotels but he says he still goes back to his old home sometimes.

"I shut my eyes and I can see myself, a barefoot boy walking through the long grass with the cattle holding a little stick."

He says that even back then he felt empowered, somehow knew that he was different.

"I felt I could do anything, just me and that little stick. I felt I could have killed a lion."

Happily, although he's lived through violent times, he has used his charismatic power only for good. He is at the forefront of a movement dedicated to preserving the music and culture of South Africa through education.

And of course he continues to strive for world peace: "I want to show people the way to peace," he says. "Sing to those who think you're their enemy and they won't attack you. Getting people to listen, that is the answer."

Ladysmith Black Mambazo play Lighthouse in Poole on November 4. Telephone 01202 685222. Their latest album Rain, Rain, Beautiful Rain, a 32 track very best of compilation is released on Wrasse Records.

© Jeremy Miles 2022