Some of the worst crimes ever perpetrated by the film industry have been the deliberate distortion of history in order to perpetuate stereotypes and justify empires. Africa became the Dark Continent, and the people who lived their ignorant savages who were either gentle children always eager to serve Massa or evil natives ready to shrink their heads or measure them for the stew pot at a moment's notice.
Nations whose history dated back to the birth of man are casually dismissed as savages, because they have objections to somebody coming in and ruling their land, destroying their culture, and not distinguishing between individual nations. Nope, to the Europeans they are all just darkies who all look pretty much the same and in desperate need of being saved from themselves.
Although many nations were treated with disdain, the Zulu seemed to come in for special treatment, probably because they were well organized and not prepared to surrender without a fight. Who doesn't remember the brave outnumbered British soldiers in the movie Zulu fighting off the hoards of warriors? That the Brits had rifles and cannon while the Zulu were armed with spears, shields, and bows and arrows seems to have slipped everyone's mind. It's amazing how gunpowder can even the odds when you appear to be outnumbered.
What's even a bigger irony about the Zulu nation was that until the 1700s they were barely a nation, let alone a power. It was one man, Shaka Zulu, who turned the fortunes of the tribe around. He wasn't a particularly nice man; supposedly, upon his mother's death he had 7,000 people put to death in her honour and would kill anybody who refused to fight in his army. He also wasn't particularly politically astute as he was the one who welcomed Europeans to South Africa and gave them huge tracts of land in gratitude for healing him of a stab wound.
In spite of those weaknesses, he has obtained legendary status in South Africa due to his strength as a leader. He was the man to unify thousands of South Africans under one flag and give them a singular sense of purpose so that they would work together. instead of constantly feuding amongst each other. and establish a strong Kingdom. It's for these positive reasons, and the things that the warrior spirit he epitomises represented to South Africans during their years of struggle under Apartheid, that the world renowned Ladysmith Black Mambazo has produced their forthcoming album Ilembe: Honouring Shaka Zulu on Heads Up Records.
According to Joseph Shabalala, leader, and founder of the group, there are many of Shaka Zulu's characteristics that can still be of significance for people of all countries, but especially South Africans. Pride of self and country are two things that he considers of primary importance for South Africans to feel, as well as learning from Shaka's example of unifying to accomplish great things.
I don't know how many of you are familiar with the singing of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, but from the first time I heard them perform back in the mid 80s on Paul Simon's Graceland recording, I was struck by the overwhelming sense of hope that their voices inspired. Whether it was a matter of my ear not being used to the sound of their harmonies, or the inflections in their voices, that's what I heard in the intent of their singing. Nobody can sing with such harmony and not have hope is a silly argument I admit, but that's what my heart told my head and for once, they were in accord.
On Ilembe: Honouring Shaka Zulu I know it's not my imagination that they are singing with hope in their voices, because the stated intent of the album is that each song should honour an aspect of the character of Shaka Zulu that will be inspirational for the people of South Africa. You don't sing about things like that with anything far removed from hope in your hearts.
Being the ultimate non-singer (I've been told I sing upside down and backwards) any harmonization always astounds me. To hear the voices of the eight men in Ladysmith Black Mambazo harmonize in the way they do has to be one of the most beautiful sounds I've ever heard vocally. There's a unity of purpose and sound they create with their voices that somehow touches the spirit far more then can be appreciated until you've heard them for yourself.
If you can imagine what it might be like for a vocal group to sound like a gentle breeze first brushing the tops of the high grasses of the South African veldt. Then caressing the thinner, upper branches of the centuries old tree that is the only break in the unending undulation of rolling plains before it goes where ever a wind goes when there is nothing left for it to touch; you might begin to understand how Ladysmith sound to my ear.
However, beneath the surface lies the steady rhythm of a heart that's strong and proud that has withstood the tests of time for almost as many ages as the world has existed. It would be romantic and sentimental to say you can hear the history of our species echo in that heart beat, but there is the echo of something familiar to almost everything when Ladysmith Black Mambazo sing.
Although the lyrics of most of the songs on Ilembe: Honouring Shaka Zulu are going to be incomprehensible to most audiences beyond the borders of South Africa, the intent of the disc and the individual songs as inspiration and motivation is always clear. In order to assist with providing direction, each song comes with an accompanying couple of sentences that summarizes which aspect of Shaka Zulu's character they are encouraging people to emulate.
Colonial masters the world over followed the same blueprint for controlling superior numbers of indigenous peoples in a conquered territory; destroy their self-esteem. Take away a people's pride in themselves and they won't be a threat, because they have nothing to care about anymore. It will turn what was once a unified nation of people into a mass of individuals who have little or no interest in anything beyond their own needs. When the colonial masters vanished this left a void that still remains to be filled.
In some places, it's being filled by the terrorists who offer at least a means of retaliation against those who appear to be the cause of their suffering. Ultimately this won't improve the lot of anybody, except those who stand to profit by the disruption and chaos that continual unrest breeds. Ladysmith Black Mambazo's alternative, far more constructive than any War On Terror could ever be, is to instill a sense of pride by reminding people of who they are and what they are capable of.
I know it's hopelessly idealistic to believe that one singing group can make any difference in the way the world works. But, when you listen to Ladysmith Black Mambazo sing in honour of the warrior spirit of their people, you can't help but feel an upsurge of hope and believe that anything is possible. Maybe if everybody were to listen to Ilembe: Honouring Shaka Zulu…. well who knows?