Interviews Music

Vusi Mahlasela lights the way

“I wish politicians would realise that they can change the world if they work together like musicians collaborating, the world would be very different place,” sighs the man who has teamed up with the likes of Dave Matthews, Josh Groban and now Soweto Gospel Choir.

Vusi Mahlasela should know — for the past 30 years, he has embraced political and social messages that celebrate the importance of reaching out to others. Themes of conciliation and forgiveness run through his songs like the proverbial river through the desert.

“We should learn to forgive, and in that way you learn more about yourself and learn to be free,” he tells me at one point, citing the actions of those “who planted the seed of conciliation in our country” — Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.

“If you don’t forgive, you are the one who is suffering most. You become like a dried leaf that’s crushed up and swept away by the wind every time. Forgiveness is more about you, the forgiver.”

He’s not simply playing lip service. Mahlasela’s speaking is as gently unassuming as his singing is hauntingly beautiful. It’s quite disarming, really, adding a genuine belief and simple purity to everything he says.

So when I ask why his songs are multilingual, his words sound reverential rather than trite: “If you learn another person’s language, you better learn to understand them, to know their culture and also to love them.”

It’s an ideal that could be traced to the first years of his life — in the late ’60s you didn’t get more of a melting pot for African culture than a sheeben in Mamelodi. That’s exactly where he grew up — and developed his love for music.

“My grandmother used to own this shebeen which was very illegal,” he grins over the line from the very same township he still calls home.

“Quite a lot of characters used to come to the shebeen, musicians as well. That’s when I first realised that music made me happy — singing along at the back of the shebeen to the acapella voices,” he remembers.

Singing surrounded him — at school, at church, at parties and weddings — and fascinated him. By the age of six or seven he’d made his first guitar — from tin and fishing line.

“It was more of a toy for me,” he confesses. “At that point I was just playing around.”

But that same DIY attitude helped Mahlasela and his friends form their first band, using everything from empty containers to tennis balls for instruments (“We were very creative”). And it helped him get noticed for the first time.

“A neighbour of mine, who worked the night shift at a radio station gave me my first guitar. He gave us the name Dangerous Invaders,” he recalls. “As a child it was just joyful to play anything.”

But that — and Mahlasela’s life — changed with the student riots of June 1976.

“I was around 11 at the time, and it opened my eyes to all the political and social injustices in my country,” he explains. “That’s when my political education started.

“I used to go to these political gatherings and I’d see these people reciting and other people beating drums. And I asked: what are they doing? And they told me this person is reciting poetry over the background of music.”

It wasn’t long before he was that person on the stage. The child’s shattered innocence was replaced by political activism — and, of course, the associated police harassment. But that did little to curb him.

He’s fond of telling how his grandmother once threatened officers with a pot of boiling water if they came inside to arrest him. And his writing, if anything, increased.

“The police were doing raids and they confiscated some of my writings, like the poetry. And after that I thought: ‘From now on, everything I write I’ll cram it in my mind so that nobody will take it from me’.

“Then I had more reasons to go on.”

Go on he did, joining the Congress of South African Writers in 1988 which gave him the confidence to, three years later, release his debut solo album ‘When You Come Back’.

Since then — partly thanks to the cheerleading efforts of fellow local boy Matthews — he’s followed in the footsteps of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba in taking South African music to a global audience.

But that’s only part of the reason we get to see so little of him on local stages. He echoes Masakela’s assertion that so-called protest musicians are finding it hard to get bookings in South Africa because the ANC was “terrified” of music as an agent of change. But, typically, Mahlasela is somewhat less vitriolic.

“We served the struggle when it was right, but now the people who were really organising us during that time have passed on, or some have left the political movement. There are many new faces, they don’t know exactly what we’ve done. So it’s very difficult.

He sighs.

“I’d love to play in South Africa more but there are two distinct audiences — some people want to come to a show for the vibe and then of course some want to listen to the music and hear the messages.

“I’ve got different messages, messages about reconciliation, about power and greed. But sometimes you’ve got to be romantic, or sing about things that are more global as well.”

It’s a combination that works well with international audiences — and less well at home.

“It’s very difficult to present the songs the way you want to. Politically of course if you’re going to be talking about reconciliation in South Africa, that’s what people are already going through. People are tired of it. They don’t want to hear that and they don’t come to the shows.

“But there are still people who want to know about that or need to know about that. Especially the youth. Because I think there’s quite a lot of ignorance which really disturbs me. They forget that the privileges and the lives that they’re enjoying today, they didn’t just come by. They were fought for and people died for those privileges.”

In his unassuming voice, Mahlasela doesn’t sound like he’s preaching, or even bitter, preferring, as always, to look on the bright side.

“I am really fortunate in some ways in that I’m travelling all over the world right now,” he confesses.

And that travelling all over the world has enabled him to collaborate with musicians like Matthews and Groban whose work is far removed from his.

“Cooperation brings musical energy,” he reveals — when it works.

“I think that I have been very fortunate that I was always connected with the right forces and great people in their own regard and in their work, believing in what they do. And collaborating with people like that creates a lot of positive energy.”

If only the politicians would listen.

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