Vusi Mahlasela: Songs of substance vs the SABC

Singer, songwriter and ambassador of ubuntu, Vusi Mahlasela usually spends the early months touring and lecturing across America. For 2012, though, he’s in South Africa – including a rare date in Cape Town, accompanied by Afrikaans songstress Karen Zoid.

First appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2012/ 02/26

Vusi Mahlasela: Songs of substance vs the SABC

Two things stand out during my interview with Vusi Mahlasela. dubbed ‘The Voice’ in all his press releases. The first is that he needs to pause for a moment and remember which show it is that this interview is about – that’s how busy he is with projects ranging from musical collaborations to social projects and lectures. The second is that, amidst the flurry of all of that, he takes the time to ‘phone back after the interview and clarify a point about one of the new projects he is involved in. We could start with how Mahlasela has formed a firm friendship with expat music superstar Dave Matthews and his family; about how he transformed the categorically South African song, “Weeping” for a new audience; or how he’s working on two separate tributes to Miriam Makeba – one with Beninoise songbird Angelique Kidjo and one with Makeba’s ex-husband, Hugh Masekela; or the latest honorific he’s been awarded, The Martin Martin Luther King Jr., César Chávez, and Rosa Parks Visiting Professor’s Award at the University of Michigan. Instead, we start with why the globe-trotting star took the time to telephone a newspaper journalist in Cape Town.
“It’s a new project called Indoni, and it’s about being a product of your culture,” says Mahlasela. “I lecture on African heritage and history across the United States and in other places, but that needs to be happening more here in South Africa. We need to educate our children to not just be inspired by what they see on television from other countries, but also to be inspired by their own African culture. I wish that the government would address this more; showing young people how to be proud of what they are, and where they come from and their culture. It’s also about principles, and Africanness.”
Mahlasela has long been a proponent of such sentiments, and an international ambassador for the African notion of ubuntu, something he consider to have informed his music from the start. Paradoxically, that has seen him garner more recognition internationally than at  home although, happily, this imbalance is being redressed. “When you stick to what you believe, when you make music that is from where you are from, and not doing something that is closer to what they do in another country, then people learn to appreciate that,” he says. “When you are overseas, and you come and sing songs in an African language, or in English, but with subject matter that carries the weight of who you are, then there is a spirit of ubuntu that Westerners can start to understand to the fullest. Ubuntu is a gift from Africa, and the West is interested to hear it. In the concerts, between songs,  I elaborate on what it means. About everyday kindness and helpfulness, about love and warmth, about compassion and forgiveness and reconciliation, about the redistribution of moral knowledge and skills. If you live on this planet earth, you have to be human, and ubuntu teaches us how to do this.”
When Mahlasela plays his Cape Town show, it will be in a guitar duo format with Afro-jazz string-master Oupa Makhubela, veteran of Mahlasela’s Proud Peoples Band, and a regular at  Mabopane jazz haunts. The show will comprise classic Mahlasela material (things like his version of “Weeping”, and the anthenic  “Silang Mabele”) as well as material from his new album, “Say Africa”, recorded in the United States and produced by Taj Mahal. Hopefully, this will include “Nakupende Africa”, the duet with Angelique Kidjo that launched the 2010 Soccer World Cup concert. There are also the songs with Karen Zoid. That collaboration was born from shows in Bloemfontein where the two singers, guitarists and songwriters shared a bill. It’s easy to see Mahlasela’s vision of ubuntu in action in their decision to create a full-blown show that ran to acclaim at Gold Reef City’s Lyric Theatre, and Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre in late 2011. Implicit in the show was each musician’s desire to bring “their” audience to a show where the separate sets of fans were able to experience music from a broader palette of South African influences and messages.
Expanding the repertoire of what South Africans hear and appreciate is something close to the heart of a musician who spent some time, especially after being signed to Dave Matthews’ ATO Records, playing to sold-out audiences in America and Europe, while getting very few bookings back home. “South Africa is different,” he says simply. “Radio is not supportive. When you have something of substance to say, their response is, ‘No, we can’t play that.’ Maybe having new people on the SABC board will help, and we will see more programmes that make us proud as South Africans, and change our lives – not just musicians, but for all artists. We have many challenges at home, but there are some changes. The National Arts Council needs to understand that we need more places to showcase our art. South Africa still has problems with music venues. My vision is to build a theatre in Mamelodi – this is where I am, and this is where I come from. I keep working towards that, and I will see it happen one day.”
2012 is shaping up to be a busy one for Mahlasela, who is normally attending to lecturing duties in the United States during February and March, and contributing to Black History Month events across that country. 2012 is the ANC Centenary, though, and he’s played a number of key slots there. Also, says Mahlasela, he wanted “to take a breather” and let the year unfold as it might. That includes work with his US-based four-piece, an ex-pat powerhouse comprising drummer Ian Herman (of Tananas fame), bass dynamo Bakithi Khumalo and guitarist Mongezi Chris Ntaka, veteran side-man to the late Lucky Dube. There are the Makeba tributes, and additional work with has Acoustic Africa project with musicians from the Ivory Coast and Mali. “Also,” he remarks casually, “Sometimes working with other artists like Paul Simon and so on. It’s always interesting doing music projects with different people. But most of all, I love the intimate shows; the ones where it is Vusi Mahlasela and the guitar, in a theatre. Or, maybe, even in a forest.”
Vusi Mahlasela plays with guest Karen Zoid at the Paul Cluver Forest Amphitheatre for one night only on Saturday 10 March (Paul Cluver Farm, Elgin, 45 minutes from Cape Town on the N2; gates 5pm, music 7pm; tickets R250 from Computicket.com; picnic baskets welcome, but sushi and picnic hampers are on sale, as are Paul Cluver estate wines). More on Cluver.com and VusiMahlasela.com. Bookmark Indoni.co.za for future reference.First appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2012/ 02/26

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