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It's been a Long Walk To Freedom.

Byline: By GARETH BICKNELL

IF ever a group of musicians had the right to call a recording Long Walk To Freedom, it is Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Twenty years ago Albert Mazibuko, one of the world-famous South African group's singers, was a young father, struggling to bring his children up under the apartheid regime.

With Ladysmith Black Mambazo he would explore and express spiritualism and the struggle for freedom, but was only allowed to perform among the poverty-stricken black communities.

But all that changed when American singer Paul Simon discovered the group's tribal rhythms and asked them to collaborate with him on his acclaimed 1986 Graceland album.

Since then Ladysmith Black Mambazo have toured the globe endlessly - their next date is in Llandudno on Sunday - and have been credited with inspiring the modern-day popularity of world music.

Given that sequence of events, and the fact that eight years later South Africa was liberated from the racialist oppression of apartheid, it is understandable that Albert, a 58-year-old father-of-seven who has been with the group for 36 years, reserves high praise for Simon.

"When Paul Simon came to South Africa that was a breakthrough for the group. We wouldn't be known all over the world without that, and when we talk among ourselves we say this is a man who was sent by God," he said.

"We wanted to share our music with the world, we believed it might bring peace. We wanted to go all over the world, and that was the greatest thing and the highest thing that happened to us."

At the time, says Albert, who has three sons and four daughters and lives in Durban, even if white people enjoyed the group's music they were afraid to admit it.

"We were only performing in the black townships," he says. "Although I do remember a white family used to attend our shows and they were following us everywhere. But after we sang with Paul Simon everyone would attend our shows, it was open or us to perform in cities and city halls."

He adds: "Things are very much better in South Africa now in terms of opportunity. We can go everywhere and our children can go to the schools they want to go to.

"You can buy your house wherever you want - I know how it was painful to not be allowed in some certain places. Because I lived through the apartheid era, now I know the country is free. South African people have grown so much together."

The Long Walk To Freedom is, Albert explains, a collection of Ladysmith Black Mambazo's most popular songs, featuring guest vocals by the likes of Melissa Etheridge and Emmylou Harris. Etheridge sings a rousing and edgy rendition of Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes, recorded by Simon two decades ago, while other favourites include a gospel medley of Amazing Grace and Nearer My God To Thee, plus the haunting and hymn-like Homeless.

"These songs they have something to do in people's lives," Albert says. "I always say music in all countries is coming from the same source, which is that it's coming from God."

He says this is the reason the group's music has become popular all the over the world, and why music can bring people together.

"The music (of different countries) is related because God wants to unite people," he says. "This is the way that we can communicate and talk to each other, even though we are not speaking the same language. Music talks to people, whatever language they speak."

A POIGNANT portrayal of an apartheid-ridden South Africa comes to Wales next week.

From the world famous Market Theatre, Johannesburg, comes Athol Fugard's The Island, in which. two prisoners on Robben Island struggle to hold on to their dignity and humour in the humiliating existence which is their everyday life.

The Island is a vital historical record in the story of South Africa and a vivid representation of how the country was itself imprisoned by its crippling vision of racism and injustice.

Athol Fugard's The Island is at Aberystwyth Arts Centre on Tuesday, May 30 at 7.30pm. For tickets call 01970 623232 or visit www.aberystwythartscentre.co.uk

Ladysmith Black Mambazo are at North Wales Theatre, Llandudno this Sunday at 8pm. For tickets call 01492 872000 or visit www.nwtheatre.co.uk. Their album, Long Walk To Freedom is out no

gareth.bicknell@dailypost.co.uk

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:May 26, 2006
Words:750
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