Joseph Shabalala, the gentle-voiced South African songwriter whose choir, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, brought Zulu music to listeners worldwide, died on Tuesday in a hospital in Pretoria. He was 78.
The cause was not immediately known, but his health had deteriorated after he had back surgery in 2013, said the group’s manager, Xolani Majozi, who announced the death.
Mr. Shabalala began leading choral groups at the end of the 1950s. By the early ’70s his Ladysmith Black Mambazo — in Zulu, “the black ax of Ladysmith,” a town in KwaZulu-Natal Province — had become one of South Africa’s most popular groups, singing about love, Zulu folklore, rural childhood memories, moral admonitions and Christian faith.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s collaborations with Paul Simon on his 1986 album “Graceland,” on the tracks “Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” introduced South African choral music to an international pop audience.
In 1987, Mr. Simon produced Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s first major-label album, “Shaka Zulu,” which won a Grammy Award. The group went on to enjoy global recognition, including four more Grammys, decades of extensive touring and guest appearances with Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Josh Groban, George Clinton and many others.
Nelson Mandela called Ladysmith Black Mambazo “South Africa’s cultural ambassadors to the world.”
Joseph Shabalala — his full name was Bhekizizwe Joseph Siphatimandla Mxoveni Mshengu Bigboy Shabalala — was born on Aug. 28, 1941, near the town of Ladysmith, where his parents, Jonathan Mluwane Shabalala and Nomandla Elina Shabalala, worked on a white-owned farm.
In 1958 he left to find factory work in the port city of Durban, about 200 miles to the southeast. There he sang with the group Highlanders before returning to Ladysmith and starting a group, the Black Ones, with some of his brothers and cousins in 1960.
Mr. Shabalala often said that a series of dreams he had in 1964 had led him to reshape the music of the group, which became Ladysmith Black Mambazo. He refined an a cappella Zulu choir style called isicathamiya — “stalking style” — which had grown out of song-and-dance competitions in hostels for migrant mineworkers, an urban adaptation of rural traditions.
Mr. Shabalala’s version of isicathamiya was built on plush bass-heavy harmonies, call-and-response drive and dramatic contrasts of soft and loud passages, along with choreography that included tiptoeing moves and head-high kicks.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo triumphed at local competitions in the 1960s. In 1970, it performed for a live radio broadcast from Johannesburg. That performance soon led to a recording contract, and the group released dozens of albums on South African labels, adapting Zulu traditional songs.
The group was invited to perform at festivals in Germany beginning in 1980, and it appeared in “Rhythm of Resistance,” a documentary about South African music by Jeremy Marre, which is where Mr. Simon first heard them. When he met Mr. Shabalala in Johannesburg, Mr. Simon invited him to collaborate.
“He came to me like a child asking his father, ‘Can you teach me something?,’” Mr. Shabalala recalled of Mr. Simon in the liner notes to the expanded 2016 reissue of “Graceland.” “He was so polite. That was my first time to hug a white man.”
The group recorded “Homeless,” merging Mr. Simon’s material with a Zulu wedding song, at Abbey Road Studios in London in 1985. The next year, in May, Ladysmith Black Mambazo performed the song, which had not yet been released, with Mr. Simon on “Saturday Night Live.”
The group recorded “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” with Mr. Simon while in New York and joined his international “Graceland” tour in 1986 and 1987.
The group resumed its own recording and touring career with vastly expanded opportunities. Through the next decades, Ladysmith Black Mambazo appeared on “Sesame Street” and “The Tonight Show.” It performed when Nelson Mandela received his Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and a year later at Mr. Mandela’s inauguration as president of South Africa.
The group appeared on Broadway providing music for a 1993 play about apartheid, “The Song of Jacob Zulu,” and Mr. Shabalala collaborated with the Steppenwolf Theater Company of Chicago and the playwright Ntozake Shange on a musical based on one of his songs, “Nomathemba.”
Ladysmith Black Mambazo also recorded steadily, collaborating with pop and rock musicians on the 2006 album “Long Walk to Freedom” and reaching back to Mr. Shabalala’s childhood with “Songs From a Zulu Farm” in 2011.
He announced his retirement from Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 2014; three of his sons — Sibongseni, Thamsanqa and Thulani—are in the current lineup of the group, which canceled its current tour on hearing of his death.
Mr. Shabalala’s wife of three decades, Nellie, was murdered in 2002. In addition to his three sons, his survivors include his wife, Thokozile Shabalala; two daughters; four more sons; and 36 grandchildren.