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As heard on 'Graceland'

They've traveled the world, singing for presidents and kings. They've worked with some of the greatest popular artists of the age, from Paul Simon to Spike Lee. They've recorded more than 50 albums. And next week, they'll be in Detroit Lakes.

On Sunday, March 12, Grammy Award-winning artists Ladysmith Black Mambazo will take the stage at the Historic Holmes Theatre for a one-night-only performance.

When the curtain rises at 7:30 p.m., the audience will be transported back to another age, as this eight-member group brings to life the music of 1918 South Africa.

The traditional music sung by Ladysmith Black Mambazo is called "isicathamiya" (is-cot-a-mee-ya). Born in the mines of South Africa, these were the songs sung by the workers to entertain and comfort themselves in a land far from their homes.

"Most of them had never been away from their homes before," said Albert Mazibuko, one of the group's longstanding members, in a telephone interview from his hotel room in Madison, Wis., on Tuesday. "They entertained themselves by singing the music they used to sing at home."

Poorly housed and paid worse, the mine workers would entertain themselves at the end of a six-day work week by singing songs into the wee hours, every Sunday morning. These were the "Cothoza Mfana," or "tip-toe guys," so named for the dance steps to their music, choreographed to be much quieter than the original.

"They started to tip-toe (through the dance) so as not to disturb (the camp security guards) with their stomping," Mazibuko explained.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo has adapted that music to the present day. Their 90-minute performance (two 45-minute sets with a brief intermission in between) in Detroit Lakes will consist of "Lots of singing and lots of dancing," Mazibuko said. "We talk a little bit to introduce the songs, but we mostly just sing and dance. It's a celebration show... it's joyous."

The joy, he explained, comes from the music itself.

"The music is about making people stronger, about being above their suffering," Mazibuko continued. "The music brings joy, because when you sing, you forget about everything except enjoying the music."

Currently, the group is five weeks into a 12-week U.S. tour that spans both coasts and hits as many spots in between as possible.

"We miss (South Africa), but it's also good to tour around the world and see different places, meet new people," Mazibuko said. "It's wonderful."

When the group is on the road as much as eight or nine months a year, though they do take long breaks in between two or three-month tours, "We enjoy being home more because we don't have much time to spend there... we appreciate everything more," he explained.

But none of this -- the tours spanning all parts of the globe, the Grammy Awards on display in their homes, the opportunities to work with a diverse group of world-renowned musicians ranging from Stevie Wonder to Dolly Parton, the chance to be widely regarded as "cultural emissaries" of the South African people -- would likely have been possible without an American-born musician named Paul Simon.

Though the group had been together since 1960, and recording albums since 1972, it wasn't until Simon began working with them on an album named "Graceland" that the group came to the attention of the world at large.

"'Graceland' really opened a big gate for us," Mazibuko said. "Now we are known throughout the world. It was quite an experience for us... a breakthrough."

It was in 1985 that Paul Simon first met Joseph Shabalala and the other members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo at a recording studio in Johannesburg. Having listened to a cassette of their music, sent by a DJ based in Los Angeles, Simon was captivated by their sound. He incorporated the traditional sounds of black South Africa into his "Graceland" album, now regarded by many as seminal to the explosion of world music onto the international recording scene.

The group's first U.S. album release, "Shaka Zulu," was produced by Simon, and won the Grammy award for Best Traditional Folk Recording in 1987. This past year, in 2005, the group won its second Grammy for Best Traditional World Music Recording, with its release of "Raise Your Spirit Higher."

Besides working with the diverse group of musicians mentioned above, the group has also made appearances in a Michael Jackson music video, "Moonwalker," and movie director Spike Lee's "Do It A Capella." They have also provided soundtrack material for a wide variety of movie releases, including Eddie Murphy's "Coming to America" and Sean Connery's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."

Tickets for the March 12 show are $20 for adults and $10 for students. To purchase, or for more information, contact the Historic Holmes Theatre Box Office at 218-844-SHOW (7469).

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454