As Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker turns 30 this year, we spoke with Ladysmith Black Mambazo about working with the late King of Pop.
Growing up as an 80’s baby, I had a deep love for Michael Jackson. I still do. Like many, I researched his every move and moonwalk and dreamt of meeting him one day. When we lost him in 2009, I remember going over every single thing I loved about MJ with a fine tooth comb. Finding his demos and listening to his process. Watching all of his interviews and learning his personality. And, of course, watching all of his music videos and short films to gain insight to his vision.
Something that stood out to me, that I always pondered about, was in the last scene of his film Moonwalker, during the credits. There was an entrancing song chanting, “Come and see. The moon is dancing.” It left me in a spell. What an intoxicating message and melody to end the film with. To imagine that even the moon was dancing with Michael was inspiring.
As a child I didn’t understand all of the lyrics to “The Moon Is Walking,” and as an adult I found myself wanting to know more about the group who sang the song. It is truly a shame that they are not mentioned in the credits. This is something I recognize happens more often than not. Someone comes in as an addition to a project and doesn’t get credited appropriately. Thanks to Okayplayer, I get to change that narrative and give very due credit and respect to the South African iconic group known as Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Most folks are only familiar with the world-renowned moonwalk dance, but only die-hard fans know about Moonwalker. The 1988 film is multifaceted and features music videos, claymation, live performances and strangely enough Joe Pesci as a drug lord villain. It’s a musical cerebral trip which truly serves as a promotional film for the album Bad. It was quite popular, even spawning a video game. Featured videos include “Leave Me Alone”, “Smooth Criminal” and a kids reenactment of “Bad” called “Badder”.
Who Is Ladysmith Black Mambazo?
If you aren’t hip to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, you may have heard their work with Paul Simon on Graceland or on one of their 50 studio recordings. Hailing from South African, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is an acapella group of male vocalists founded in the early 1960s by Joseph Shabalala. The story goes that Joseph had a string of dreams of songs of Isicathamiya (traditional Zulu) harmonies that were so vivid he took action and started the group. The group’s name breaks down as follows:
Ladysmith: Refers to the city Joseph grew up as a farm boy in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
Black: Refers to the oxen and them being the strongest of the animals on the farm.
Mambazo: Is Zulu for an ax which also represents the strength of the voices of the vocalists.
Since it’s beginning, Ladysmith has changed formation a few times, mostly due to old age and sometimes death. Something that has not changed is the relationship of the group. The members still consist of Joseph’s cousins and since the 1990’s, a few of his sons. Although Joseph no longer tours, his sons do in his place. There are also two of the older members still touring, one of which I got to talk to about working with Michael Jackson on the epic piece that is Moonwalker. His name is Albert Mazibuko and he and his brother Milton are the two eldest members of the group still performing.
Meeting Michael Jackson
Turns out that the members of Ladysmith and Michael interacted for less than 24 hours. Michael Jackson’s management reached out to their management when they were in Los Angeles and invited them to the studio. From there they met and performed and agreed to participate in the project Moonwalker.
Albert recalled the session and what led up to them building out the song:
“Because we were around Los Angeles our tour manager told us that Michael Jackson’s manager called and Michael Jackson wants to meet Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I said ‘Really? Is this for real?’. He said yes and I remember that morning we were so excited waking up cooked breakfast, and then we went there to the studio to go record. When we got there he was already there. So he was sitting down with his family.”
“Then as soon as he saw us he stood up, he met us half way and he was wearing his gloves, so he took them off and then he put the gloves in his pocket and shook hands with us and gave Joseph, the leader of the group a hug. Michael Jackson is a person that doesn’t register in our hearts that he is a real person. He said ‘I am so glad that you made time to come here. I’m a big fan. I brought some of my family here. My mother and my sister and one of my brothers. I would like to do something with you’.”
The Collaboration On Moonwalker
After this meeting, Joseph and the rest of Ladysmith went back to their hotel. Joseph got to writing and created choreography from moves within their repertoire. Later that evening they attended the rehearsal and taping of Moonwalker and presented what they created to Michael. The song was titled “Lindelani” which means “get ready”. He loved it.
Albert spoke on the moment where Ladysmith shared the song and dance with Michael.
“Joseph said we want to sing you a song. We thought you might like this song and then he sang ‘Hello My Baby.’ And so we sang the whole song and did the dancing and everything. After that, he was smiling, looking down, and said, ‘So I hope you will be available tonight for rehearsal because I am doing a shoot for my project called Moonwalker’.”
Presenting “Linedelani (Get Ready)” As “The Moon Is Walking”
Although written for Moonwalker, “Lindelani” would appear on their album Journey of Dreams released March 1988. The song expresses hope and joy and the magic of being in the moment. This is such a needed message then and now. A message of hope and faith and encouragement, which Albert explained at length when he spoke with us about the creation of this song.
“‘Lindelani’ means wait for those blessings that are coming from above. Yes, and then you say they are coming above like the rain, like raindrops. Why Joseph wrote those lyrics were because he was seeing what was happening to us. To have that kind of blessing to be able to meet with Michael Jackson and work with him.
So he said, when we talked about it, he said, ‘You know sometimes you can sit and you don’t know when your luck is gonna come, but just wait because everything is coming from above. So now is the time that our blessings are coming. So this is the time now’.
The song was about that. And then also when [Michael] talked about the moon he said the moon is above so everything is coming [from] above. Everything is coming to us. The song was written around the situation was happening at that time. The blessing I think is the only way that I can fit to describe what was happening.”
The “Moon Is Walking” Choreography
From the song to the choreography, everything was made to highlight this moment, meeting and working with Michael Jackson. Joseph used movements from Ladysmith’s then-current choreography and incorporated steps from Michael and his dancers to add a certain amount of presence and to capture the feel of the experience.
“Something that amazed us was the kind of dancing they were doing,” Albert told us. “The crew that they had was so tight with the dancing and so clean. Something they did which is still amazing was when they were standing and leaning forward. I thought maybe it was something attached or some kind of invisible rope or something but no it was nothing. They just did that thing really and we just said, ‘Wow, amazing.’ And then after that, he said ‘I’m going to do the song.’”
“‘When I sing the song you can just join in and do what you want to do,’” Michael told the group. “Joseph had written something after they spoke a little bit. So Joseph has a piece that he had been writing. When we do the dancing there were little infuses in the dances we did for him during the day so it was making it easier for us to relate it to one another. We had rehearsed it [on our own] maybe three times and even in the rehearsal we shortened it.”
“The Moon Is Walking” & Its Impact On Apartheid
Nothing has been written about this moment in time when Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s song reached the Motherland, but it is quite powerful. I always knew Michael Jackson was a researcher, like myself. He is one of my biggest influences outside of my parents in terms of feeding my thirst for knowledge. To see the light of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and know the impact it would have on his film and during the time of Apartheid speaks to the depths of his thought process.
“You know we felt like there were some people who were behind our struggle all the time,” Albert confessed to Okayplayer over the phone. “So it was making us stronger. Even though sometimes we would get concerned when we would go back home because we didn’t know what the apartheid regime would think about us. But fortunately, I think we were lucky because the songs that we sang were very careful that we didn’t put something [in the song] that they could use against us. We thought a lot about that and when we met Michael Jackson we said this will strengthen the struggle at home. It shows that there are people out there that care about our well being at home.”
Ladysmith Black Mambazo Still Keeps The Moon Dancing
Although Ladysmith Black Mambazo met with Michael Jackson that day in 1987, they never met again. This was their first and last collaboration. “Just one day and then we never met him again. Just one moment in time. That morning and then that night and then everything was done,” Albert told us. At the time of writing this, Ladysmith was on tour after winning a Grammy for their latest release Shaka Zulu Revisited: 30th Anniversary Celebration. I highly doubt they will be slowing down anytime soon as this is a strong tradition that has Joseph Shabalala rooted in his family. Who knows what’s to come next in terms of their future collaborations. Maybe Bruno Mars or even Erykah Badu? Whoever it is and however it happens, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has a place in history that cannot be shaken and even the King of Pop had to acknowledge that.
Catherine Harris-White (aka SassyBlack) is a Seattle-based freelance writer and artist whose album, New Black Swing, is available for consumption at Bandcamp. She has written for Crack Magazine, Tom Tom Magazine & Soundfly’s Flypaper. You can follow the latest and greatest from her on Twitter @SassyBlack_.