Joseph Shabalala, the gentle-voiced South African songwriter whose choir, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, brought Zulu music to listeners worldwide, died Tuesday in a hospital in Pretoria. He was 78.
Shabalala began leading choral groups at the end of the 1950s. By the early 1970s his Ladysmith Black Mambazo — in Zulu, "the black ax of Ladysmith," a town in KwaZulu-Natal Province — had become one of South Africa's most popular groups.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo's collaborations with Paul Simon on the 1986 album "Graceland," on the tracks "Homeless" and "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes," introduced South African choral music to an international pop audience.
In 1987, Simon produced Ladysmith Black Mambazo's first major-label album, "Shaka Zulu," which won a Grammy Award. The group went on to enjoy global recognition, including four more Grammys, decades of extensive touring, and guest appearances with Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Josh Groban, George Clinton and many others.
Joseph Shabalala — his full name was Bhekizizwe Joseph Siphatimandla Mxoveni Mshengu Bigboy Shabalala — was born Aug. 28, 1941, near the town of Ladysmith, where his parents, Jonathan Mluwane Shabalala and Nomandla Elina Shabalala, worked on a white-owned farm.
In 1958, he left to find factory work in the port city of Durban, about 200 miles away. There he sang with the group Highlanders before returning to Ladysmith and starting a group, the Black Ones, with some of his brothers and cousins in 1960.
Shabalala often said that a series of dreams he had in 1964 led him to reshape the music of the group, which became Ladysmith Black Mambazo. He refined an a cappella Zulu choir style called isicathamiya — "stalking style" — that had grown out of song-and-dance competitions in hostels for migrant mineworkers.
Shabalala's version of isicathamiya was built on plush bass-heavy harmonies, call-and-response drive and dramatic contrasts of soft and loud passages, along with choreography that included tiptoeing moves and head-high kicks.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo triumphed at local competitions in the 1960s. In 1970, it performed for a live radio broadcast from Johannesburg. That performance soon led to a recording contract, and the group released dozens of albums on South African labels, adapting Zulu traditional songs.
In May 1986, Ladysmith Black Mambazo performed "Homeless," which had not yet been released, with Simon on "Saturday Night Live."
While in New York, the group recorded another song with Simon, "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes." Ladysmith Black Mambazo joined Simon's international "Graceland" tour in 1986 and 1987.