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What inspired Joseph Shabalala’s genius - in his own words

Joseph Shabalala was the leader of the internationally renowned Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and the best-known exponent of the unaccompanied male choral style known as isicathamiya. Appropriately, tributes following his recent death have reminded us of the extraordinary achievements of this most celebrated of South African composers working within a popular endogenous idiom.

But they have left largely untouched questions about what lay behind those achievements: the sources of his creative energies, his beliefs about what he was doing, his wishes about what he wanted to achieve.

I came by the some of that information along several routes.

Joseph and I had a long friendship; we enjoyed a professional association that culminated in his appointment as an honorary professor of music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal; and I had the privilege of sitting down with him over a period of six months for a series of focused discussions to probe these very questions. In a characteristically generous move, he also gave me access to his hand-written private notebooks, filled with his musical and music-teaching reflections.

The school of dreams

One of the core topics we broached was the question of how he learnt his craft as a composer. His answer was startling: for a period of six months in 1964, he was visited in his dreams every night by a choir “from above” who sang to him.

I’m sleeping, but I’m watching the show. I saw myself sleeping but watching, just like when you are watching TV.

Shabalala compared this experience to that of going to school.

I was lucky to be trained by that spiritual group. These people were my teachers. I learnt everything about music from those people.

But why compose at all? What provided the particular impulses for Shabalala’s songs? He had more than a single answer. He would say things like:

Sometimes you can hear the music when you just keep quiet.

But pressed to be more specific, his answers would become less mystical.

The composition comes from your eyes. You see something. You see something and you want to correct if that thing is wrong, or you want to praise if that thing is right. You feel maybe this thing’s not good, how can I correct this? Or you feel like, how can I tell the people that this thing’s good, we must all do things like this, I wish to see this again? Alright, alright let me make a song about it!

Joseph Shabalala leads Ladysmith Black Mambazo in a performance in Washington in 2007. Photo by. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

At heart, Shabalala was motivated by a belief of disarming simplicity – that, as he once put it to me,

Music is for peace. When you sing, you feel like you want people to come together and love each other and share ideas.

He attributed by far the largest and most important part of the process of composing music to what occurred while he was asleep.

When I’m sleeping my spirit does the work. Sometimes at night when I’m sleeping, I will discover my wife shaking me – says, ‘Hey what’s going on? Are you singing now?’ So that’s why I say: When my flesh is sleeping, it’s daytime in my spirit.

He described this sleep-time work as “a beautiful teaching at night”. He might have laboured over a song during the day, but

at night when you relax, you feel like there’s somebody who is next to you, talking to you, correcting you. To me, it’s just like a school at night. In fact, I’m just like somebody who has an advisor all the time when I think about music.

A quest to be original

Linked to Shabalala’s wish to contribute to the betterment of society, was the unrelenting demand he made of himself to try always to do something new as a composer. He lived with the injunction to be original, to surpass himself, to do what had never been achieved before within the isicathamiya idiom.

This could become a burden – and nowhere more so than in the commercial recording studio, where his ideals clashed with the studio’s primary commitment to produce a profitable commodity.

Shabalala’s impulse to do better often had the effect of making his music more complex: it became more difficult to rehearse, to perform, to record, and its tendencies were often at odds with the formulaic expectations of the record producers. In years gone by, he recalled, he would take his group to the studio to record an album and be finished in five hours. But at the apex of his career this would take a week – or even longer if he was dissatisfied with the results.

Most dramatically, this became manifest in Shabalala’s growing resistance to the three- or four-minute song. Had his ambition been granted, he would have abolished such limitations altogether. Indeed, so “policed” was he by these industry standards that they were worryingly with him from the first rehearsal of a new song. Even at that early stage he would check the length of the piece against the clock, discuss the matter with the group, have them sing through the song without any repetitions.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s song Long Walk to Freedom was released in 2006.

For what he ultimately aspired to was to make an album consisting of a single, unbroken song. Once he went as far as to propose the idea to his producer at Gallo Music Productions.

I said, can you allow me to make an album, just sing, not stopping? Just sing, just sing. I can give different melodies – but not stop, just sing right through. Just to tell the people a story.

Of course, this flew in the face of industry commodification, and the request was ridiculed. “He was laughing at me!” Shabalala said. “He was just laughing at me!”

Aesthetic that wish certainly was, but it was also inseparable from Shabalala’s unremitting ambition to find better ways to help bring about a more humane world. That ambition found many expressive modalities in his work and practice. One of my personal favourites is a typically poetic entry in one of his notebooks. In a section entitled Practical Advice to Composers: On the need for authenticity, he writes:

Look for the sound that has not been heard. Cattle don’t bellow in the same way. How do the calves low? How does a goat bleat? How does a crow crow, and how does it communicate with a hen? There are many birds – they do not sing in the same way.

Such were the values that Shabalala lived for, and that came to life in his huge output of songs for his multiple Grammy-award-winning vocal group. He leaves a legacy not just to admire, but also to ponder. It is one from which we have things to learn.

This article is based on research originally published in The British Journal of Ethnomusicology. Read the paper over here.

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