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Vusi Mahlasela: 'The Voice' of Ubuntu

What does it mean to be a South African? Forget about that “rainbow nation” political rhetoric or those “proudly South African” sales pitches that advertisers use to assault the public. In an evolutionary democracy that is still struggling to overcome economic, ethnic, racial, and linguistic divisions, what does it really mean to be a South African?

Throughout a musical career that spans three decades, Vusi “The Voice” (as critics and fans affectionately tag him) Mahlasela has led the way when it comes to celebrating our collective search for a sense of being South African and embracing our universal humanity. Gazing into South African pop music’s turbulent history, past the flash-in-the-pan success stories and dismal dead-ends for innumerable “great” musicians, Mahlasela is a figure who’s always stood proud, forging an art that is at once defiant and deeply human.

Vusi Mahlasela 275x365

A virtuoso vocalist and self-taught finger-picking guitarist, his inspirational acoustic fusion of folk, mbaqanga blues, and jazz on seminal albums such as When You Come Back (1991), Mahlasela’s songs of freedom proved a potent voice of protest in South Africa’s struggle against Apartheid. Even more significant were Wisdom of Forgiveness (1994) and the award-winning Silang Mabele (1997), whose multilingual messages of truth and reconciliation shifted the country’s consciousness way beyond any autopsy of Apartheid by calling for a collective struggle to address those sociocultural issues that threatened South Africa’s fledgling democracy.

“South Africa is still very fragile and needs to be protected all the time,” cautioned the Mamelodi-born troubadour a few years back. “We have such a diverse culture. Unless we address all the issues, we’ll never know what time it is. The key is learning other people’s languages. If you understand these, you understand their stories, culture, and what connects us as people.”

For Mahlasela, this understanding begins with telling stories that connect South Africans with their past struggle, present challenges, and hopes for a better future. It also extends into writing songs that address more universal concerns. “The world is shrinking right now. We are immigrating into a global village,” he observes. “The question is this: How much do we want to belong?”

This is not just a rhetorical question of reanimating former President Thabo Mbeki’s dream of an African renaissance either. Like many so-called “third world” artists and thinkers, Mahlasela’s concern about the effects of ongoing Western cultural imperialism runs deep.

“I am disturbed by the ignorance of our youth about African folk music and traditions,” he says. “We need a cultural revolution to give our people direction in a positive way through music.”

For Mahlasela “cultural revolution” and a “positive message” take root by applying the ancient African philosophy of ubuntu to his music. “Ubuntu is a great gift from Africa. It is about love, forgiveness, empathy, and sympathy. It talks about redistribution of morals and knowledge,” he explains. “Without those things—without morality, knowledge, and the sharing of it—what would we be? Where would our dignity lie?”

Fuelled by an authentic belief in cross-cultural dialogue and collaboration, Mahlasela’s mission is to incorporate folk music traditions from around the globe into what he simply refers to as “a fusion to glorify the spirit of collective good in the music.” It’s this message of ubuntu that the “The Voice” shares openly on 2007’s Naledi Ya Tsela (Guiding Star). Written and recorded during a three-year tour that saw Mahlasela performing to audiences on every continent across the globe, Guiding Star features collaborations with Grammy-winning a cappella legends Ladysmith Black Mambazo, mbaqanga keyboardist Black Moses Ngwenya, jazz pianist Paul Hanmer, poet Lesego Rampolokeng, rocker Dave Matthews, Welsh songstress Jem, American blues guitarist Derek Trucks, Australian didgeridoo star Xavier Rudd, and more.

This dizzyingly diverse cast of collaborators enables Mahlasela to clear the way for rock, jazz, blues, reggae, maskandi, and mbaqanga to come together and converse in the universal folk musical tongue of our ancestors. This is the profoundly humanist sound of an African troubadour, sharing his stories about crime, poverty, illiteracy, and human-rights abuses to deliver an inspirational road map of how to “restore morality back to its place in society.”

It’s this road map that really kick starts the revolution on his 2011 masterpiece Say Africa, which sidesteps Afro-pessimism to offer a strong message of hope not only for South Africa, but for the entire continent. The title track is a breezy Afro-pop reminder of what it means to be African in our global village. In contrast, acoustic blues meditation “Conjecture of the Hour” is a searching and fearless inventory of the consumerism, corruption, and lack of leadership in an Africa struggling to overcome its post-colonial hangover.

“There is still so much for us to learn. We need to realize that we need each other,” advises Mahlasela, touching on the message of hope at the core of his genre-imploding conversations with collaborators who include American bluesman Taj Mahal (“In Anyway”) and Afrobeat siren Angélique Kidjo (“Nakupenda Afrika”). “Songs come to you and choose how they want to be shaped,” he adds. Nowhere more so than on his kwela blues rallying cry “Woza,” where he revisits the swinging sounds of Sophiatown while giving Miriam Makeba’s classic “Click Song” and Enoch Sontonga’s seminal “Mbube” a shout out. “I stick to what I think is right” he explains. “There is a spirit that enables me to create these songs. I thank this spirit every day. I don’t know its name, but I can feel it. It is like a borrowed fire from God. And I have to use it in a very positive way.”


—Miles Keylock
© 2014 The Carnegie Hall Corporation