The Beautiful Irony of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Amazing Grace

You can’t imagine how this music (below) takes me back. It takes me back to a dusty township and dirty children, smiling wide, excited to come to church. It takes me back to Africa, to the beautiful Zulus I shared life with as a boy. My father, who planted a Zulu church along with a Zulu pastor, used to joke that you could tap the next five Zulu men you met and if you put them together you’d have the Mills Brothers. This is no insult to the Mills Brothers, a group we love. Instead, it’s an only-barely hyperbolic expression of how incredibly gifted Zulu people are as singers. Almost all Zulus can sing, but perhaps no group is more famous than Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Great Performances

Ladysmith Black Mambazo is legendary in South Africa, hailing not too far from where I lived. But they are also well-known internationally, most famously for backing up Paul Simon on his classic album Graceland. (Here they are singing Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes live.) You might also actually recognize them from a Lifesavers commercial.

They are wonderful. They remind me of a powerfully formative period of my life.

I love all their music, but hearing them sing Amazing Grace is particularly poignant. Why?

Because the composer of that song, John Newton, once captained a slave ship trading in African slaves. This is, of course, well-known and was dramatized in the film about Newton’s friend William Wilberforce named, “Amazing Grace.” That all these years later, an African group would sing Newton’s song so beautifully is a kind of glorious irony. The Gospel shattered Newton’s way of life, and the music born of that beautiful breaking has circled the globe and is sung by Christians everywhere, including Africans.

Including Zulus, a people I will always love.


  1. Lovely reflection, Sam.

    I love this video of their SNL performance with Paul Simon: http://vk.com/video-2009067_33437153

    Their beautiful voices, synchronized movements, joy-filled faces, and Simon’s lovely voice…it’s all SO good! Gives me goosebumps every . single . time!

    And when the intro ends and that electric guitar starts up, it’s just incredible. You can hear the audience’s tentative clapping…then you hear their delight especially when LBM start their wonderful dance — the sound of minds being blown by something strangely (to them) beautiful.

    And to top it all off, the song is perfect! Yep – I LOVE it all!


  2. Missionary work is often said to be hard on kids, but I love how much larger your world – and heart – seems to have become as a result of it.

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s beautiful.

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