Ladysmith Black Mambazo first blipped our cultural radar in 1986, with the arrival of Paul Simon's "Graceland." But for nearly 50 years, the Grammy-winning a cappella ensemble has worked tirelessly to promote South Africa's history and traditions. Their latest album, "Always With Us," weaves together traditional songs sung by the group's late matriarch, Nellie Shabalala, with newly overdubbed parts. CTNow asked founding member Albert Mazibuko about the new recording and current tour, which stops at UConn's Jorgensen Center on Feb. 1.
CTNow: Do you recall where you were when you learned of Nelson Mandela's passing?
AM: I was home in Pietermaritzburg. It was late at night when they announced it. My son told me something was happening on the news so I began to watch it.
CTNow: Can you talk about your recent recorded tribute to Mandela's legacy?
AM: We dedicated... "Live: Singing For Peace Around The World," which has been nominated for the Grammy Award as Best World Music CD of 2013, to Mr. Mandela. We dedicated that CD to him because he told us that we were the South African Cultural Ambassadors to the World and we needed to spread his message of peace everywhere. This has been our mission ever since. It is because of Nelson Mandela and his message of peace that we want to sing everywhere. ... "Always With Us" [Ladysnith's newest CD] is about someone close to our group who has died but her life, her memory and her spirit remain with us always. For us, the music is about this person, but it could be about anyone for another person. It certainly can be about Nelson Mandela. He will certainly be with us always.
CTNow: When you are on tour, what are your favorite things to do when you reach a new city or town?
AM: Honestly, we are so tired from the travel that the best thing is to get into our hotel rooms and rest before the concert. We stopped being tourists many years ago and we focus on the shows. They are what is most important to us so we make sure we are well rested and ready to perform. We want to be very professional about our concert tours so that we can continue this journey of ours for many more years.
CTNow: What do you think you would have done in your life if you didn't become a musician?
AM: In South Africa it was never possible for a black person to have dreams of great things they might do. Apartheid never allowed this. When I left our family farm, outside of Ladysmith, South Africa, it was important for me to find work. I needed to work to bring in money to help my family. Beyond doing that I never dreamed of anything. When my cousin, Joseph Shabalala, our founder and leader, told me he wanted me to join his singing group, in 1969, I thought, well, this will be nice. It will give me pleasure. We never thought it would be much more than that. But then people wanted us to sing at parties and festivals and it grew and grew. Even then, it wasn't the main thing we did to make money. That didn't happen until Paul Simon and the "Graceland" CD. We just never dreamed this would be as big as it became. So, before that, my dreams were very simple.
LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO appears Saturday, Feb. 1, at 8 p.m. Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts, 2132 Hillside Road, Unit 3104, Storrs. Tickets are $33 to $40. Information: 860-486-4226 or jorgensen.uconn.edu