I didn’t know Joseph. Sure, I’d heard him sing. Most all of us have, I suppose, even if we didn’t realize it.
David knew Joseph. David is the only person I know who actually and personally knew Joseph. David was the one who first told me his story.
He also is the one who recently told me that Joseph had died.
Joseph Shabalala was the co-founder and musical director of the Grammy award winning South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Mambazo means “hammer” in Zulu and Ladysmith is the name of the township where the group was formed). Their unique sound was already famous in South Africa when, in 1986, Paul Simon introduced them to the rest of the world on his landmark album, Graceland. If you are unfamiliar with the group, please STOP READING THIS and find a way to listen to songs like “Diamonds on the soles of her shoes,” “Homeless,” “Beautiful Rain,” and “Hello My Baby.” You’ll thank me.
The group’s style is unique and inimitable. I’ve always described their sound as “soft-shoe” but that seems a bit trite. The actual word for their style is isicathamiya, which is best translated as “treading softly.” This style of singing and dancing was born in secret. As workers in the local mines (indentured servitude bordering on slavery to be exact), they were not allowed to sing or dance in their dormitories. This led them to create a style song and dance that was soft enough to elude their overseers, and yet strong enough to convey the weight of their message of hope. (REALLY, STOP READING THIS AND LISTEN TO “HOMELESS!”)
I didn’t know Joseph, but David did. This is the story that David told me.
In 1991, Joseph’s brother was shot and killed. It was a senseless racial killing. A reporter asked Joseph shortly afterwards, “What will you do now that they have killed your brother, your partner in life and music, the co-founder of the group?” Joseph responded simply, “We are singers. We will sing.” About a decade later, Joseph’s wife Nellie Zulu (a direct descendant of Shaka Zulu) was shot and killed as she was leaving the church where she and her husband were both ordained as Christian ministers. Joseph’s hand was wounded as he tried to protect Nellie. Once again, it was a senseless killing. Once again, Joseph told the world, “We are singers. We will sing.”
I hope that you will take some time today and listen to Joseph singing with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. If you do, you might just feel the weight of their soft song. You might be moved to laugh or cry – possibly at the same time. You will most certainly hear a song of hope – that’s the only kind of song he sang. Regardless of whether you skip over to YouTube and search out his music or not, I want us to all take a moment and remember a few things about Joseph Shabalala. Let us be bold enough to remember that he is one of the first people in his family to not die at the hand of senseless evil. We must not forget that. I think we should also remember that sometimes the softest voices have the most to say. More than anything, I think we should remember his voice and join our song with his. After all, we are the church and we know the words. We are singers. We will sing.