Ladysmith Black Mambazo founder Joseph Shabalala, who worked with Paul Simon and Steppenwolf, dies at 78

With his music group, the singer-songwriter contributed to Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album and the landmark Chicago stage production ‘The Song of Jacob Zulu.’

SHARE Ladysmith Black Mambazo founder Joseph Shabalala, who worked with Paul Simon and Steppenwolf, dies at 78
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Ladysmith Black Mambazo founder Joseph Shabalala performs in Johannesburg in 2002.

ALEXANDER JOE/AFP via Getty Images

JOHANNESBURG — The founder of the South African Grammy Award-winning music group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Joseph Shabalala, has died at age 78, the group and the government announced Tuesday.

Shabalala died at a hospital in the capital, Pretoria, Tuesday morning, his family told local media.

He was globally known for his leadership of the choral group founded in 1964 that shot to world acclaim, collaborating with Paul Simon on the “Graceland” album and many other artists. The haunting, often a cappella singing style known as isicathamiya helped to make Ladysmith Black Mambazo one of South Africa’s most recognized performers on the world stage.

With his group, Shabalala performed as part of the landmark Steppenwolf Theatre production of “The Song of Jacob Zulu” in 1992 and came along for subsequent stagings in Australia and on Broadway, where the show received six Tony nominations.

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In this 1992 image from “The Song of Jacob Zulu” at Steppenwolf Theatre, musician Joseph Shabala stands with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and is visible behind actor K. Todd Freeman (foreground).

Michael Brosilow

Ladysmith Black Mambazo reunited with Steppenwolf for the later collaborations “Nomathemba” in 1995 (co-written by Shabalala) and “Lindiwe” (sans Shabalala) last fall.

“Joseph Shabalala had a singular and undeniable charisma that drew people to him instantly and made you want to be a part of his world,” said “Jacob Zulu” and “Nomathemba” director Eric Simonson in a statement.“This was all part of an unstoppable mission to spread Zulu culture and a message of peace, love and harmony. These weren’t just words to Joseph. They were actionable goals he was able to achieve wherever he performed. I know he loved Chicago. We at Steppenwolf will miss his presence, though his spirit will remain with us always.”

Simonson directed a 2000 documentary short on the Ladysmith Black Mambazo, “On Tiptoe: Gentle Steps to Freedom,” that was nominated for an Oscar.

The South African government extended its condolences Tuesday, tweeting, “Rest in peace, you have fulfilled your purpose.”

Shabalala’s death was announced as the country marked 30 years since the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, which led to the end of the country’s brutal system of racial oppression known as apartheid.

“[Mandela] was a loyal follower of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who had the distinction of being part of the cultural program at the Nobel ceremony where our founding president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize,” South Africa’s presidency said.

Shabalala retired from Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 2014 but made occasional appearances at its events. He had been hospitalized several times since 2017.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo “is on tour in the U.S., but they have been informed and are devastated because the group is family,” manager Xolani Majozi told local media outlet Timeslive. Majozi said the group would cut its trip short and return to South Africa.

“Our founder, our teacher and most importantly our father left us today for eternal peace,” the group said on Twitter. “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.”

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