How the Discovery of a Secret Archive Entirely Changed Joseph Shabalala Biopic ‘Music Is My Life’

Eight years ago director Mpumi “Supa” Mbele went to watch a live performance of South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo in Joburg Theatre with his son, who had no idea who they were but was amazed by their performance. He turned to his dad and said: “Ah dad, you should tell their story.”

“That’s where the idea started,” the filmmaker tells Variety about the documentary “Music Is My Life,” in which he chronicles the life of the late Joseph Shabalala – from his early years in rural KwaZulu-Natal and his rise to global fame with the iconic group, until his death in 2020. The film, which provides a fresh insight into the man, his ambitions and his band, screens at Joburg Film Festival.

It was the discovery of a secret archive, one kept by his widow with an astonishing collection of recordings and audio tapes made by Shabalala himself, and which she gave Mbele access to after two years into the project, which completely changed the biopic that “Music Is My Life” ultimately ended up being.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs on July 5, 2011 in Durban, South Africa
Getty Images

“By the time I started engaging with Joseph Shabalala, his health was already not in a good space. However, ‘Music Is My Life’ was never structured around him being the driving force. The film is looking at his world from a third window, not necessarily his point of view.”

“With certain things, the universe just guides you to them. His wife Mam’ Shabalala (Thoko Shabalala) trusted me and the relationship with her grew to a point where she’s more like a mother to me now.”

“All the guys in the band who are his kids, they also entrusted us with this story. I think they could tell that it was honest, that there was no malicious intent, it was just the truth. I presented the idea to them, they saw it and I guess liked it, and then we started engaging.”

Like Peter Jackson’s “The Beatles: Get Back” documentary series, “Music Is My Life” is a mosaic of many never-before-seen recordings and frank conversations. It takes viewers into unguarded and revealing moments with Joseph Tshabalala and people in his orbit like Paul Simon, thanks to the musical genius who obsessively recorded and documented everything about his career.

It was the discovery and Mbele’s access to this treasure trove of archive recordings which changed the entire direction of “Music Is My Life,” with the filmmaker not knowing of its existence when he initially started out with the project.

“The film that you see is a completely different film from what I had written when I started the journey. It was [due to] building trust and the Shabalala family allowing us to be in their space. Mam’ Shabalala opened the door to this room two years after working on the production. That was when the entire story changed.”

“We got the tapes in the third year of the project, so we had to relook at the story completely: the approach, the execution part of it,” Mbele says.

“By then we also didn’t have time. So we really had to find time to include this archive. It changed the film. The voice now became Bab’ Shabalala’s voice, which we never had for the film. There was going to be a person narrating the story. But as soon as I got the tapes of him talking about his journey, it was a no-brainer that it needed to go in there.”

“The relationship between him and Paul Simon was genuine. It was not this facade thing that we sometimes have as a people. It was genuine. And we need more stories like that.”

“What a genius. He’s left a legacy that I don’t think any South African artist has left. His kids still tour the world. His kids still perform; do sold-out shows. There’s no artist in South Africa that has done that. And in the world it’s only Bob Marley where his kids have taken the baton and continue to move the legacy.”

Editing “Music Is My Life” to 90 minutes with commentary by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Dolly Parton, Whoopi Goldberg and others was challenging, says Mbele. “I still feel like there’s another film that’s not there. There was so much material that we had that never made it to the film but at some point it needed to be cut.”

He reveals that production-wise, accessing this archive and the music rights were challenging.

“That has been probably the most painful part. It just tells another story of how South African music – most people don’t own their musical rights. Archives and music rights were the most difficult parts of bringing ‘Music Is My Life’ to screen.”

In bringing African and South African stories to the big screen, Mbele says: “In terms of talent we’re probably one of the best. International crews remain amazed about the level of talent we have here in South Africa. You also see it with our actors when they’re given opportunities; our cinematographers, our directors, producers, grips.”

“It’s just the finance. Local film institutions like the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF), the KZN Film Commission, they helped us create this story, but it’s not enough. We need more. We need the public sector to come on board and to believe in telling these ethnic stories. TV channels support series and dramas but not necessarily documentaries which are where the ethnic stories are at,” he says.

“The KZN Film Commission were the first people to buy into it before anyone else so they gave the film the legs. It took us five years to get ‘Music Is My Life’ together and to get it right,” Mbele notes.

As to what he’s learnt from his first foray into documentary filmmaking, Mbele says “that it’s painful.”

“It’s a very painful journey but it’s worth it at the end of the day. If I don’t do it, who else is going to do it? I’ve learnt that it’s very painful. It’s very emotionally exhausting. But if I were to be asked to do it again, I would definitely do it again. If you firmly believe in us as South Africans and our stories – we’ve got so many stories that are still untold, which could bring out a completely different perspective on who we are as a people.”

Mbele’s advice for young black South African filmmakers is that “it’s not easy and it will never be easy.” He says: “You shouldn’t expect it to be easy but it is doable. We’ve come through a long history of fighters, warriors and achievers. Don’t let anyone make you feel less for your idea. That idea that you have – don’t let anyone discourage you about it.”

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