The group was organized in the early 1960s and was named for Mr. Shabalala’s hometown, Ladysmith; the black oxen on his family’s farm; and the Zulu word for ax, mambazo, which served as a symbol of the group’s sharp harmonies and ability to cut down the competition.
Singing primarily in Zulu, Mr. Shabalala and his group performed onstage with synchronized body movements, declaring that while listeners might not understand the lyrics, “we can make the song talk with our hands.” Their a cappella music was gentle and exuberant while tinged with melancholy — a defiant expression of joy amid years of political unrest and violence that claimed several of Mr. Shabalala’s family members.
While their songs were not overtly political, “their lyrics did speak to the rampant racial and economic disparities . . . and oppression of black South Africans living under apartheid,” said Janie Cole, a musicologist at the University of Cape Town. “They created the soundscape of a particular time and place in South African history which offered so much despair, fear and violence, yet also hope, humanity and the vibrant rhythms of African resistance and resilience.”
Their music was closely associated with the South African styles known as mbube and isicathamiya, which emerged out of mining camps and industrial worksites where migrant workers toiled far from home, singing late into the night. “Living under an oppressive regime which denigrated all forms of black culture and music as unsophisticated and primitive, they turned the tables,” Cole said.
While the layered harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and other vocal groups were known in South Africa for decades, they acquired an international audience only after Mr. Shabalala and his singers collaborated with Paul Simon on his 1986 album “Graceland.” In its wake, Mambazo released the 1987 record “Shaka Zulu,” which was produced by Simon and earned the group its first of five Grammy Awards.
The singers later collaborated with artists including Dolly Parton, Josh Groban and Emmylou Harris; performed in Michael Jackson’s experimental 1988 movie “Moonwalker”; and earned a Tony nomination for their score to the 1993 Broadway play “The Song of Jacob Zulu,” in which they performed as a chorus.
“Nine unaccompanied male voices are all Ladysmith Black Mambazo needs to summon the sound of community,” New York Times music critic Jon Pareles wrote of the play. “Harmonizing on a sustained chord, the group has the depth of a cathedral pipe organ; singing rhythmic riffs, it has the drive of a steam turbine.”
Mr. Shabalala, who converted to Christianity in the 1970s and often incorporated religious themes in his music, called the Ladysmith Black Mambazo sound “a gift from God.” His dreams, he said, had been haunted by children singing in a strange language: “I failed to catch the words . . . but I caught the tune.”
A onetime farm boy, he began singing when he was about 12, initially annoying his mother. He migrated to Durban as a teenager, worked at a textile plant and sang with a choir known as the Highlanders before forming his own ensemble around 1960. Originally known as Ezimnyama, it evolved into Ladysmith Black Mambazo and featured several of Mr. Shabalala’s brothers and cousins performing call-and-response.
Their light touch set them apart from other vocal groups. Quiet harmonies burst suddenly into noise, and Mr. Shabalala punctuated the music with percussive lip smacks and rolled R’s inspired by the calls of ox herders. The ensemble gained national exposure on the radio and made its studio debut with “Amabutho” (1973), generally considered South Africa’s first gold record by a group of all-black musicians.
It was followed by two-dozen hit albums before Simon saw them on a British television special, the start of a musical obsession in which he used their songs as lullabies to fall asleep at night. Traveling to South Africa to record “Graceland,” he enlisted the group to sing on “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and collaborated with Mr. Shabalala to write “Homeless.” Its lyrics drew on a traditional Zulu marriage ritual while echoing the country’s unrest: “Strong wind destroy our home / Many dead, tonight it could be you.”
A worldwide tour for the album featured South African musicians including Miriam Makeba, Ray Phiri and Hugh Masekela, who recalled some unease over how Ladysmith Black Mambazo would be received, singing in a relatively unknown language and performing numbers that included the Pan-African liberation song “God Bless Africa.”
“But they practically ran away with the show,” Masekela told Rolling Stone.
For all his success, Mr. Shabalala was not sheltered from apartheid. In 1991, his brother Headman, who sang bass in Ladysmith Black Mambazo, was shot and killed by an off-duty security guard who said he was trying to make a citizen’s arrest for reckless driving. “My brother was killed by racism,” Mr. Shabalala said at the time. “He was unarmed and was shot by a white man. It is unbelievable that such a thing can happen.”
The guard was convicted of culpable homicide but not imprisoned, serving his three-year sentence under house arrest, according to news reports. For his part, Mr. Shabalala faced a personal crossroads. “God is telling me to stop singing. That is his way to talk to me,” he recalled thinking.
Eventually, the spirit moved him to go forward and keep performing. The message, he told NPR, was, “This is your talent. Carry on singing.”
He was born Aug. 28, 1941, and raised on a farm outside Ladysmith, roughly midway between Durban and Johannesburg. Both parents were spiritual — he said his father was an herbalist, his mother was a diviner — and Mr. Shabalala initially dreamed of “becoming an educated person,” perhaps a teacher or doctor.
After his father died, he was forced to quit school to work on the farm, where he began singing in earnest.
Mr. Shabalala was married for three decades to Nellie Shabalala, a pastor and fellow singer who led her own all-female group, Women of Mambazo, before being shot dead outside Durban in 2002. Mr. Shabalala was reportedly injured as he pursued the gunman, and the killing generated months of tabloid headlines after his son Nkosinathi Shabalala — a stepson of Nellie — was charged in connection with the killing. He was ultimately acquitted.
Surprising some of his own family, Mr. Shabalala married an aid worker, Thoko Maduna, six months after Nellie’s death, explaining that he had seen Maduna’s face in a dream. He faced further tragedy in 2004 when another brother, former Ladysmith Black Mambazo singer Ben Shabalala, was also fatally shot.
Mr. Shabalala retired in 2014. He had been hospitalized several times, including for spinal surgery, but no cause of death was announced. Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s manager said that the group was ending a U.S. tour early to return to South Africa.
Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
After converting to Christianity, Mr. Shabalala became an ordained minister with the Pentecostal Church of God of Prophecy. And while songs such as the English-language number “King of Kings” invoked religious themes — “Our Father, our Father / We are asking for peace in the world” — he said he sang for all, regardless of faith, creed or language.
His music continued amid outbreaks of violence, including when a riot broke out while he and Ladysmith Black Mambazo were in Johannesburg. “People were fighting, the kids were fighting. But not Black Mambazo,” he told Rolling Stone. “The policeman ask us, ‘Where do you come from?’ I said we come from singing. They said, ‘You are singing while the people are fighting?’ I say, ‘Yes. They are doing their job. I am doing my job.’ ”
Read more Washington Post obituaries