When the late Joseph Shabalala founded the South African men’s vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo more than 50 years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that the a cappella ensemble would acquire international fame. Although always a standard bearer for the presentation of isicathamiya and mbube music and dance rooted in the Zulu tribal traditions of the country, their worldwide recognition came about when they collaborated with Paul Simon on his groundbreaking 1986 album Graceland. They sang on two tracks on the album that won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, both songs co-written by Simon and Shabalala who died in February of last year.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s global popularity was even more solidified the following year with the release of their Warner Bros. album Shaka Zulu, produced by Simon, which ultimately earned the group their own Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Recording of 1987, the first of five they have won. Simon also returned to the Grammy winner’s circle that same year, taking Record of the Year for the title song from the Graceland album.
Along with international fame came a newfound presence on concert stages throughout the world, including North America where the group has been booked consistently ever since. The Pollstar boxoffice archives include concerts that have occurred in 43 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces from 1987 through 2020.
In the archives, the first headlining date reported for Ladysmith Black Mambazo came on the heels of the Graceland project, a show on June 12, 1987 at The Wiltern in Los Angeles. Promoted by Bill Graham Presents, the event drew a sellout crowd of 2,200 and grossed $36,300. Tickets for the show were priced at $16.50 which is valued at about $40 each today, accounting for inflation.
Traditionally their performances have been booked primarily in theater or club-sized venues on tours in the U.S. and Canada. Our boxoffice data includes a total of 539 shows reported since 1987, with overall ticket revenue totaling just over $17 million from 594,398 tickets. That’s an average of $31,585 in grosses from 1,103 sold seats per show. The average ticket price is $28.64 but, as with any artist’s career stretching over multiple decades, tickets for the earlier shows were much lower than 21st century results. Some low prices from the ‘80s/’90s era were under $10 in North America, yet during the last 10 years, several venues have offered top tickets over $100. The Winspear Opera House in Dallas has the record with a $125 high ticket for a performance on Jan. 15, 2011.
The group’s boxoffice history also includes some performances at arenas and other larger venues, most notably the tour they did in 1987 with Simon following Graceland. He took the group, along with South African musicians Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, on the road that year to Europe, Australia and North America. The “Graceland” tour also included an African performance, a stadium concert in Zimbabwe on Feb. 14.
Among the best-attended events stateside on the ’87 tour, New York City’s Radio City Music Hall scored the largest ticket count with a five-night run that kicked off on April 25 and moved 29,370 tickets. The gross figure hit $819,130 at the time which is valued at about $2 million in today’s dollars.
The North American leg also included shows at three arenas that reported boxoffice figures. The venue with the top ticket count was Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens from shows on June 23-24, 1987, with an attendance total of 23,335. It topped the headcount at the Spectrum in Philadelphia by just seven tickets at two concerts held there the previous week (June 17-18). Incidentally, neither of those arenas are in operation today as the Spectrum was demolished in 2011 and the Toronto site was reconfigured the same year for other uses.
On July 2, 1987, Simon and the South African artists performed for a sellout crowd of 16,363 at Madison Square Garden in New York for a $355,000 gross (now about $840,000). Finally, an amphitheater date followed four days later at Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, N.Y. (now named Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater), drawing some 10,000 fans.