Ladysmith Black Mambazo leader Joseph Shabalala dead at 78

The founder of the South African music group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Joseph Shabalala, has died at age 78, the state broadcaster reported Tuesday.

The group, founded in 1964, became one of South Africa's best known music exports

Joseph Shabalala, founder and music director of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, is shown at an event in Johannesburg on July 10, 2010. He died in hospital Tuesday morning. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

The founder of the South African music group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Joseph Shabalala, has died at age 78, the state broadcaster reported Tuesday.

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

He is world-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 others. The haunting, often a cappella singing style known as isicathamiya in Zulu, helped to make the group one of South Africa's most recognized performers on the world stage.

The South African government in a tweet extended its condolences. "Rest in peace, you have fulfilled your purpose," it said.

The death was announced as the country prepared to mark 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. The group performed at several events attended by Mandela through the years.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo has won five Grammy Awards in its career, out of 17 nominations, most recently for best world music album for 2017's Shaka Zulu Revisited: 30th Anniversary Celebration.

Shabalala received a songwriting credit along with Simon for the Graceland track Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes. The album itself would garner Simon five Grammys in various categories in 1986 and 1987.

While the album was a commercial smash, Simon was accused by some critics of cultural appropriation and of breaking a United Nations cultural boycott by surreptitiously recording in South Africa. 

Shabalala through the years would defend Simon's intentions.

"I think what he has done is probably the most positive statement ever on South Africa," he told The Canadian Press in 1987. "He's changed the lives of many people. He's changed the course of South Africa."

The group would endure personal tragedy in 1991 when Headman Shabalala, who, like his brother, was with the group since its inception, was fatally shot by an off-duty white security guard near Durban.

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

"The group [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.

With files from CBC News and The Canadian Press


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