Albert Mazibuko wasn’t sleeping much when he first joined Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 1969.
In those days, Mazibuko and the other members of the group, all family, would rehearse for hours on end every night, often until morning. Leader Joseph Shabalala, Mazibuko’s cousin, had formed the South African choral group in 1964 to re-create harmonies he had heard in his dreams — harmonies that no other isicathamiya group (a Zulu style of a cappella singing, pronounced with a dental click in place of the “c”) was performing at the time.
“We would have to practice maybe the whole night until the next day, just to try to grasp the way he [Shabalala] was teaching,” Mazibuko said from Grass Valley, Calif., a stop on their 10-week U.S. tour in support of their 2011 release, “Songs From a Zulu Farm.” They will perform at The Egg on Sunday night.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
How Much: $29.50
More Info: 473-1845, www.theegg.org
“It was so challenging, something I had never heard. I grew up singing the same kind of music, but his way of singing, of composing the song, the way you use your voice and put the dancing according to the song [was different].”
‘In our hearts and minds’
Not only were the songs challenging, but readily available home recording technology did not exist yet.
“In order to not lose what we have learned that moment, we do it until it sinks into our hearts and minds,” Mazibuko said. “Every day at work I used to be very, very tired. We would rehearse after midnight, and on weekends you don’t sleep at all. It was always tiring, but rewarding.”
All the practice paid off, as the group soon began winning local isicathamiya competitions, so many that they were eventually banned from entering the contests. The group — named for an amalgamation of Shabalala’s rural boyhood hometown Ladysmith, the black oxen and the Zulu word for ax — signed to South Africa’s Gallo Record Company in 1972, setting off a stream of releases that now numbers more than 50.
But the group’s big break came in 1986, when Paul Simon met them during his travels to South Africa in hopes of finding collaborators for his “Graceland” album. Their collaboration “Homeless” brought Ladysmith Black Mambazo into the international spotlight, at the height of the cultural boycotts surrounding apartheid. (The group has also recently released a two-disc compilation, “Ladysmith Black Mambazo & Friends,” featuring this collaboration and others with artists including Taj Mahal, Sarah McLachlan, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris over the years.)
According to Mazibuko, who along with Shabalala are the longest-tenured members of the group, they never doubted their broader appeal, even with the difficulties presented by apartheid in the ’80s.
“It was something far away from us then, in the system we were living under,” Mazibuko said. “But we were so confident that if our music can be — if we can do it right, record it, people are going to hear them. We never doubted that they would want us to come and perform for them. . . . It was a beautiful dream all the time, and fortunately it came true.”
Over the years, members have come and gone either through retirement or death — Mazibuko’s brother Milton, who joined at the same time, was killed in 1980. Today the group features multiple generations of Shabalalas, Mazibukos and other relatives, including Shabalala’s four sons.
“Songs From a Zulu Farm” finds the group tackling traditional Zulu folk songs dealing with life on the farm — a firsthand experience for older members of the group, such as Mazibuko.
bringing back happiness
“It’s a great experience, because it brings the happiness all the time; it brings me back,” Mazibuko said. “I always see the picture of what had happened at the time I was [first] singing that kind of music.”
Some of the songs on the album are originals, and at least one — “Old McDonald . . . Zulu Style” — should be familiar to U.S. audiences. But the majority are songs Mazibuko sang growing up, such as “Ntulube (Away, You River Snakes).”
“There’s the one we sing when we go swimming,” he said. “So we sing this song to drive away all the other creatures; we don’t want to share the water with them. But we leave one creature, the turtles.”
“When I think of those things, at that time those things happened, it was a miracle — it happened by mistake,” he continued. “The feeling I always feel on stage is so young, so fresh. It picks all the waters away and gives that kind of happiness.”
For the younger members of the group, singing these songs is more of an educational experience. Ladysmith Black Mambazo has long touted its role as a cultural ambassador for Zulu traditions, and that carries to within the group’s ranks as well.
“The younger generation, sometimes they have a lot to learn,” Mazibuko said.
“They don’t know the things that were happening at that time. The young ones are surrounded by TV and radio — they don’t know anything about the culture and traditions. Our job is to teach them and put them in that state; this is what has been done and has to be done all the time.”
What the group’s younger members lack in experience, they make up for in energy. Sometimes, it’s hard for Mazibuko and his peers to keep up, but in the end it helps further the group’s mission.
“The young members, they help us day-to-day to keep it fresh all the time,” he said.
“When you’re old, you start to do things at a slow pace, but the young ones, no; always in a fast pace. It’s helping us a lot. Our job now is teaching them to do it all the time perfect, make it better all the time.”