Vusi Mahlasela: Voice of the People
When your native country goes from dismantling one of the most brutally oppressive regimes in human history to hosting soccer’s World Cup series, there’s a lot to celebrate—and a lot of work still to do, as Vusi Mahlasela insists. “The question now is how we want to belong together,” he says, “especially here in South Africa, but throughout the global village too. A lot of what I write about is to give hope, and it’s our job now to find the way forward in embracing the whole freedom of humanity, which is ubuntu.”
Now in his late forties, Mahlasela often refers to the African humanist philosophy of interconnectedness and generosity; not only has it played a critical role in South Africa’s arduous, post-apartheid efforts at reconciliation, but it also infuses his music with a quiet elegance and modesty that’s a direct reflection of the man himself. Mahlasela still lives in his township of Mamelodi, and even though he’s been declared a national treasure and has shared stages around the world with the likes of Paul Simon, Sting, Hugh Masekela, Dave Matthews and Taj Mahal, he seems almost oblivious to the notoriety, focusing instead on the unifying message behind his music.
Mahlasela’s creative journey started when he was a teenager, in the aftermath of the 1976 Soweto student uprising. He fashioned a crude guitar out of fishing net and an empty mango salad can, and started a group with a few friends. A neighbor gave him his first real guitar. “He worked the night shift at the railroad station,” Mahlasela remembers, “so, during the day, he would sleep. We would be playing our music quite loud, so he gave us a name too: The Pleasure Invaders.” [Laughs.]
Under the tutelage of numerous mentors, including Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer and the late Dr. Fabian Ribeiro, Mahlasela absorbed a wealth of poetry, politics and music, synthesizing the activism of Chilean singer Víctor Jara (a personal hero) with the fervor of the Motown and James Brown hits that he heard on the radio.
“We also heard South African music—the Dark City Sisters, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, and of course Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela—but when we listened to the radio, there was not much of our own indigenous music because the state wouldn’t allow it,” he says.
In 1992, the planets aligned with Mahlasela’s debut recording When You Come Back. The title song, which showcased his mellifluous and, by turns, gravelly singing style (a trait that inspired his nickname, “The Voice”) became a political anthem and effectively launched his career as one of South Africa’s most beloved artists.
“I’m always very much interested in addressing imbalances in the society,” he says. “It could be a song like ‘Wisdom Of Forgiveness,’ or ‘Silang Mabele,’ which is more of a call for unity to fight poverty. But it is about freedom for oneself as well. You write about what is wrong and you sing about it. A pen and a paper and a guitar are just as important to help spread the message.”
Six albums and two decades later, Mahlasela celebrates that message with Sing to the People (ATO Records), which captures him live in front of a packed house at Johannesburg’s Lyric Theatre. Classics like “When You Come Back” and the pensive lullabye “Ubuhle Bomhlaba” still resonate with their original depth and urgency, while the infectious lilt of “Say Africa” (the title cut from his outstanding 2010 collaboration with Taj Mahal) speaks volumes about the universal appeal of Mahlasela’s art. Whether he’s serenading a hometown crowd or rocking a festival half a world away, there’s something inherently familiar, and familial, about how he communicates with his fans.
“In Africa, there’s a history that our young ones don’t know about,” he explains, “so I want to encourage them to be happy about where they come from. ‘Africa, teach your children the ancient songs, so that they should glorify the spirit of collective good,’ is a quote from one of my favorite African writers, [Kenya’s] Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. These are not songs that glorify money or sex, but they are songs that say something to us. That is why I have to write about fighting poverty and being proud of who you are, but sometimes I have to be romantic and talk about love as well. There are songs and music for every occasion. This is true in South Africa, and it’s the same everywhere else. If the music can reach people and they can share in all that— and if we can communicate with one another in that way—that makes me happy.”
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