The Beautiful Irony of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s “Amazing Grace”

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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.

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 Amazing Grace about Newton’s friend William Wilberforce. 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.


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