Singer Joseph Shabalala, the founding member of the South African men’s choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo, has passed away at the age of 78, according to press reports. The singer reportedly passed away this morning in a hospital in the South African city of Pretoria, although no cause of death has been reported as of press time.
Shabalala formed Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 1964, and named the choir after his hometown, Ladysmith, in South Africa, the strongest oxen on his farm, and an axe. Prior to forming the group, Shabalala worked in a factory in Durban, and sang and played guitar in a group called the Durban Choir.
The vocalist eventually learned how to perform a Zulu singing style called isicathamiya, which evenutally helped him found Ladysmith Black Mambazo. After performing at local weddings and isicathamiya competitions, the band eventually garnered the attention of a radio station, and eventually signed to a South African record label.
Their debut album Amabutho was the first album by black South African musicians to go Gold in the country, which was deeply divided at the time due to the apartheid. During the coming decades the choir would release more albums and even toured Europe throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. While the choir performs to this day, Shabalala stopped touring in 2014.
They also became a frequent collaborator with Paul Simon, and were featured on multiple tracks featured on his 1986 studio album Graceland. Simon would also go on to produce three of the group’s albums.
Their history is also deeply embedded to South Africa’s identity, as Nelson Mandela named the group South African cultural ambassadors, after the end of apartheid.