PORT ANGELES — Albert Mazibuko grew up on a farm in South Africa. He was a tall boy, tall as the grass waving in the fields around Ladysmith, a town near the Klip River. His grandmother brought him up, and along with bedtime stories, she sang songs with him every night before bed.
Mazibuko became a young man in the 1960s, when apartheid, a brutal system of segregation, gripped his country. He might have stayed in Ladysmith, to work in the nearby KwaZulu coalfields.
But that wasn’t Mazibuko’s destiny. His cousin, Joseph Shabalala, had other ideas, other dreams, and he had a way to share them: through soft voices and graceful feet.
Shabalala assembled a group of dancers and singers in the early ’60s, and named them Ladysmith Black Mambazo — Black referring to oxen, the strongest of all farm animals, and Mambazo meaning ax in his native Zulu.
For 38 years Mazibuko has sung, danced and carried that ax ¬– which he sees as clearing a path of harmony across South Africa and around a troubled world.
Saturday night, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s path will take them onto the North Olympic Peninsula for a concert in the Port Angeles High School auditorium.
The event is a presentation of the Juan de Fuca Festival of the Arts, which seeks to bring the world’s cultures to Clallam County.
While the auditorium seats 1,100, festival director Anna Manildi said it’s a fairly intimate space for this group.
Mazibuko, 60, has performed with Mambazo in a sold-out Carnegie Hall, at the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for Nelson Mandela, and at the inauguration of Mandela when he became president of South Africa.
The group has recorded with Stevie Wonder and Dolly Parton and Ben Harper, and has given concerts for Queen Elizabeth II of England and the late Pope John Paul II.
“When we sang at the Peace Prize ceremony, it was overwhelming,” Mazibuko said in an interview from Anaheim, Calif., where the group performed earlier this week.
“We knew we were witnessing something tremendous. When we performed, the people were so quiet. It was very emotional.”
The eight men of Mambazo are modern messengers of South African culture.
They honor their forebears, men who worked six days a week in Ladysmith’s mines and then entertained themselves early Sunday morning by singing together.
They also danced, quietly so as to not awaken the mining-camp guards, and came to be called “the tiptoe guys.”
Their smooth steps can be seen in Mambazo, whose men form the picture of easy grace.
“Our music,” Mazibuko said, “is not complete without dancing.”
Since Mambazo began, the group has produced 40 recordings, of which 7 million copies have been sold around the world.
After Port Angeles, Mambazo will go to Victoria for a concert on Wednesday, and then to Toronto on Oct. 20.
On Oct. 24 the group will perform in Vilnius, Lithuania, and then continue its tour in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands into mid-November.
In 2009, the group will return to the United States, to tour the Midwest and New England from January until March.
“I love touring the U.S., especially in the winter,” Mazibuko said. “The vocal cords are much better in the cold.”
But with many Mambazo songs in Zulu, how did they become so popular with Americans and Europeans who don’t speak the African tongue?
“It’s not necessary to understand the lyrics,” Mazibuko said. “Just listen to the feeling, the feeling you get in the music. The music is something for the soul. It has its own language.”
“O Mmu Beno Mmu,” the first song on Mambazo’s new CD, “Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu,” sounds like praying, almost a South African version of Gregorian chant.
Of course, Mazibuko said. “Our music is very spiritual. We sing from the heart, with all our souls.”
Mambazo also mixes a Christian gospel sound and some English into the songs on “Ilembe.” The album is a tribute to Shaka Zulu, a visionary leader who united his tribe into a single, powerful force.
Like Mambazo’s 2007 release, “Long Walk to Freedom,” “Ilembe” is composed of songs about politics, peace and hope. Mazibuko, though at the age where he could start thinking about at least cutting back his touring schedule, has no such intention.
“I give myself another 30 years. After that I’ll take it easy, and teach. From now until [age] 90, I’ll be dancing and singing,” he said.
Mambazo has been to Port Angeles before, in 1994 or ’95, Manildi said.
The group already had become famous for the singing on Paul Simon’s 1986 album “Graceland,” a record credited with introducing Americans to what’s come to be called world music.
Manildi said she’s been trying to bring Mambazo back for years now.
“They’re as vibrant and exciting as they were in the ’80s. They’re still adding to their repertoire,” she said.
Manildi doesn’t believe one has to know the group’s whole history to fall in love with them.
“How do you explain what we receive through music? It just comes through. It’s so powerful, so honest … and we’re changed by it. You’re going to feel good afterward. And who doesn’t need to feel good these days?”
For Mazibuko, connecting with a live audience is pure joy.
Before Mambazo takes the stage, “we talk, and we joke around. Then we pray. Then we warm up our voices; we sing two or three songs. And we like to be in one room together. We have to be in one spirit,” as the concert begins.
When his feet touch the stage, Mazibuko added, his mind and body are one, focused on the present moment and nothing else.
After 20 years of touring, he still relishes the road.
The group “gets along wonderfully well. There are young guys in the group … we talk like brothers,” Mazibuko said, adding that the group ranges in age from 24 to 68.
“I want to let the people know that they should not miss the show,” in Port Angeles. “I have a special program: I will teach a song. Everybody should be prepared to sing.”
And that’s not all. “When we do the last song, people can come on stage and dance.”
How will we know Mazibuko in the line of eight men?
“I’m the only one who’s bald,” he said. “Bald and handsome.”
Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-681-2391 or at [email protected]