World famous for its month-long summer Artown festival, Reno is again becoming Artown, this time in the middle of March. The arts and culture advocate group hosts the South African a cappella group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo (LBM), on March 15 at the Grand Sierra Resort.

‘In 1999 someone in a New York City newspaper stated, ‘Reno is Artown,’ giving us re-branding of the city on a national stage. We continue to use this statement as our motto,’ said Beth Macmillan, Artown’s executive director.

Artown was developed in 1996 by local business and art executives hoping to enhance the image of Reno and invite community members back into the heart of the city; and it has been successful since its induction. Today the gala includes more than 350 events over 31 days throughout July. The National Endowment for the Arts said it is one of the most comprehensive festivals in the country.

‘This show certainly strengthens our art system by doing something outside the summer events,’ Macmillan said, ‘and something outside the box, like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, brings arts to the city people that they may not see unless they traveled elsewhere.’

This is the second time Artown has brought LBM to Reno and the third time it has hosted an event beyond the summer experiences.  

‘Two years ago we brought in the Elvin Ailey Dance Company. Another time we hosted Woody Guthrie, with great success. It offers us an opportunity to bring in events we may not be able to bring in the summer,’ Macmillan said.

Artown expects a large turnout for LBM. With a grueling touring schedule here in the U.S. and abroad, LBM has built a strong following but the a cappella group is slow to recall every performance.

‘Once we arrive back at a city the memories come rushing back. We’ve been fortunate to tour the U.S.A. three to four months a year every year since 1987, so our memories get blurry. However, we do know we haven’t been to Reno in a few years so we’re excited to return and meet new people,’ said Albert Mazibuko, a representative of LBM.

In 1987 the group reached unprecedented international success when Paul Simon featured them on his ‘Graceland’ album. While visiting South Africa, Simon met Joseph Shabalala, a former South African miner and founding father of LBM, and other LBM members in a Johannesburg recording studio. In awe of the ‘isicathamiya’ (Is-Cot-A-Me-Ya) style, with distinct bass, alto, and tenor harmonies defiant of traditional South African music, Simon incorporated LBM into Graceland. Since then, LBM and their music have crossed nearly every boundary in music. Performing for everyone from the Queen of England, to Michael Jackson, with numerous collaborations in various genres, LBM have become Africa’s most successful band.

‘We find that merging different musical styles helps us find new ways to communicate our songs,’ Mazibuko said.

Remaining true to their roots, which are much deeper than most music genres, has been the driving force behind the group’s sound.

‘This is what people appreciate and desire from us – we feel it’s important to remain who we are and to represent where we come from,’ Mazibuko said.

Isicathamiya originated in South African mines, where workers, like Shabalala, were paid and housed poorly so they entertained themselves with song and dance, done quietly, not waking the guards. (The word itself is derived from the Zulu verb ‘cathama’ meaning walking softly.) Miners returned home with the song and dance, starting a tradition in South African culture. Competitions began, and were the highlight of each community’s social calendar. Victors were typically awarded a goat as a prize. Such competitions are held in YMCA halls and churches throughout Zululand, South Africa.

After leaving the mines to experience city life in the late 1950s, and performing with various groups in Durban, Shabalala returned to Ladysmith, his hometown, to form a group. Often critical of his earlier groups, Shabalala came to an epiphany as to what the harmony should sound like. With the recruit of a few brothers, cousins and friends, Ladysmith Black Mambazo was formed. The first part of the name refers to their hometown of Ladysmith, Black references black oxen, revered as the strongest animal on the farm, while Mambazo is Zulu for ‘ax.’

The group was the best of the best, winning every competition it entered, until eventually they were banned from competing. Yet, they were always invited to perform. They were gaining local popularity; and all of Shabalala’s dreams had been realized. He never foresaw international fame.

Mazibuko states, ‘Even today, as Joseph continues to travel with the group, he finds it all a dream. He never thought his group would break out of South Africa. Now, 40-plus years on, and over 20 years since the ‘Graceland’ album, the group remains powerful. With the recent Grammy Award for our latest CD, it continues to show us what we are doing is desired by people everywhere.’

Receiving a 2009 Grammy Award for Best Traditional World Music Album, ‘Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu,’ revisited the band’s roots. They received their first Grammy in 1987 for Best Traditional Folk Album on their first U.S. release aptly titled, ‘Shaka Zulu.’ Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a true testament to the tides of time and broad experience, including 30 years of international performances, 40 albums, collaborations with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Josh Groban, and Simon, and performances for icons like The Queen, M.J., and even Nelson Mandela.

The group looks forward to every performance, especially those involving organizations like Artown, who wish to provide unique music outside mainstream media outlets.

‘Local arts organizations are vital to a community. We have many in South Africa and they keep the music scenes vibrant,’ Mazibuko said. ‘Every city has a concert promoter who will bring in the most popular groups who will make them plenty of money. But cities must have an Artown to bring music that may not make lots of money, or any, so that they can show people there is more to music than the million CD-selling groups.’

Heeding the call, Artown is dedicated to bringing in groups of such individual prowess, and great cultural representation outside our own.

‘It’s going to be an amazing performance with a lot of cultural influence from South Africa, it will truly be a moving experience,’ Macmillan said.

Support both groups, and treat yourself to a magnificent musical experience, catch Ladysmith Black Mambazo as they visit Artown March 15, at 8 p.m. in the Grand Sierra Theater, at the Grand Sierra Resort. Tickets range from $25 to $45 and are available at the Grand Sierra Resort Box Office or by phone, 775-789-2285. Artown, renoisartown.com, 775-322-1538.