Vusi Mahlasela Performs Live at NPR

Songs from Mahlasela

South-African singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela performs and talks about his political activism and the issues in his native homeland that influence his music.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

For the rest of this hour, we talk with South African musician Vusi Mahlasela. For more than three decades, his blend of folk music, blues and soul has been a soundtrack for change in South Africa. As a young man, he often performed at rallies and spent many nights in jail for his anti-apartheid message. In 1994, he performed at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela.

Since then, he has become an internationally known artist, but he still focuses on South Africa and his message of self-determination and forgiveness. He's one of three featured artists on tour in the United States to mark the release of a new CD, Acoustic Africa, on the Putumayo label. And he joins us right now in Studio 3A.

So good to have you with us.

Mr. VUSI MAHLASELA (Singer-Songwriter): Thank you. Thank you very much.

NEARY: I think the best way to begin this is with a song.

Mr. MAHLASELA: OK.

(Soundbite of song "Basimanyana")

NEARY: Vusi Mahlasela, Mahlasela on guitar and vocals here with me in Studio 3A. So good to have you with us. And I want to tell our listeners that if you have any questions about his music, his political activism, or his new CD, our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255 and our e-mail address talk@npr.org.

What a beautiful song that was. Just tell me something about that song.

Mr. MAHLASELA: Ah, thank you very much. Yes, I was singing this in Zulu language. As you know, (unintelligible) 11 official language is in South Africa. While, I speak close to 17 (unintelligible).

So the song is (foreign language spoken), the beauty of our land or the beautiful country. But here, I was not only just singing about the beauty of our country but also about the brutality that we witness from the police during the time of apartheid.

The song is more about the wisdom of forgiveness, you know, that, you know, if you forgive you lend more to release more calmness within the innermost of yourself. But if you don't forgive, you are the one who's suffering the most. You become a like a bitter leaf that can just be squashed or be swept away by the wind any time.

So as this, you know, was championed by our grandfathers of humanity, like the (unintelligible) Desmond Tutu, Dr. Nelson Mandela, again, also the man who planted the seed of the consolation as well, Mahatma Gandhi.

NEARY: Did you write that before or after the end of apartheid?

Mr. MAHLASELA: Well, this was written long before (unintelligible) that would have the truth and the consolation in our country.

NEARY: So you were already thinking about the idea of forgiveness before?

Mr. MAHLASELA: Well of course. (Unintelligible) from the very painful, you know, peace state but, you know, South Africans are really forgiving people. So it is just in us. And then I think it's really good to know, to have that, you know, because forgiveness, it's - that's the way - we (unintelligible) forgiveness.

NEARY: I know you were very active in the fight against apartheid and spent time in prison and jail as a result. And you said that your music blossomed in jail. How so?

Mr. MAHLASELA: No, not quite really that, in jail. I mean I used to be there with some of - locked up with some of our comrades. So it used to be more of a high moral (unintelligible). There was quite a lot of poetry and a lot of singing.

But also from there, after 1976 when I joined the youth organization in the South African Nation of Congress I was with a poetry group called the Ancestors of Africa. It was supported by the late Dr. Fabian Fabril(ph) who was sort of like - he gave me more of my insight about politically what was happening in the country.

And he was assassinated, by the forces of the state, together with his wife, Florence(ph). And since from that time, also again, I joined the Congress of South African Writers. And the Congress of South African Writers in 1988, where I met Mrs. Nat Incodema(ph) who became more like a mother to me. And she paid for my first music lessons.

NEARY: Has your creative process changed at all since the end of apartheid? Do you write a different kind of song now?

Mr. MAHLASELA: Well, yes, I do but from a different subject. Of course the other question would be what will be a much more positive side of continuing with protest of music or protest poetry.

I think after the post-apartheid South Africa it's still relevant for me to continue singing about that, especially now when I look at the ignorance from the youth in my country, those who forgot that the rights and the privileges that they enjoy - people fought for and also people died for. So they need some kind of a cultural revolution in some way.

But hinging from different subjects, of course, I also focus quite a lot on certain global issues. And of course sometimes you've got to be romantic and talk about love.

NEARY: That's right. What are some of the issues that influence your work now, though, some of the political and social issues that you sing about?

Mr. MAHLASELA: Well, it's more about again the ignorance from people who sort of like, they run away or maybe not trying very hard to realize the truth that is changed now taking place all the time.

The other problems, you know, in other places, like war, poverty, children dying of hunger in this world of plenty, and people said, no, it's not going to happen to us, forgetting that, you know, your neighbor's problem is also your problem unless we choose not to care.

But, you know, the world is shrinking now. We are immigrating to a global village. How much do you want to belong?

So we just want to bring those messages to make people aware that, you know, we need to honor each other as people.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now from Tanya who's calling from South Bend, Indiana. Hi, Tanya.

TANYA (Caller): Hi. How are you?

NEARY: I'm very well, thanks. Go ahead.

TANYA: Vusi, my husband and myself saw you last Wednesday at the University of Notre Dame at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. And I just wanted to tell you what a wonderful show. We had such a wonderful time.

And it's pretty obvious you and Habib and Dobet just have so much dynamic on the stage. We just really enjoyed it.

Mr. MAHLASELA: Thank you very much. Yes. We had fun, too. It was good.

TANYA: Good. I could tell you guys didn't want to get off the stage. And that's so unusual to see a concert, to see a group of people that enjoy themselves so much.

And we also appreciated it - my brother has been in Zambia for four years with the Peace Corps and he's coming home a week from today. So it really touched home for us. And Africa's a beautiful country. And we just appreciated it.

NEARY: Great. Thanks for your call, Tanya.

Mr. MAHLASELA: Thank you.

TANYA: Thank you.

NEARY: Tell me a little bit about your live concerts? Who else is performing with you? She mentioned a couple of other people.

Mr. MAHLASELA: Yes. It's acoustic Africa with, you know, three batist(ph) in the continent from Mali(ph) Habib Koite, and from Ivory Coast, Dobet Gnahore. And this is Dobet Gnahore's, you know, first appearance in the states. Me and Habib will be in played in the other states for a couple of years.

And then it's a very integral show whereby we use quite a lot of our music and then singing different languages. And then we also have, you know, some musicians who are from Tunisia and France but playing just such a very nice of the more African music, dance, poetry.

NEARY: African singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela is my guest. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

I'd love it if we could do another song now. Is that possible?

Mr. MAHLASELA: OK. (Unintelligible), the voice at the beginning is a bit long but I'll try to sum it up and just make it short.

NEARY: OK.

Mr. MAHLASELA: This is also featured in the movie, Amandla! And it's my first CD, When You Come Back.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. MAHLASELA: (Singing) This is the (unintelligible). The one who died in maintaining his mind. His will had been so strong and music (unintelligible). His sad melody is coming out like smoke from a loaded fire confessing who died in us tonight, who died this morning, and why one (unintelligible). Look down into the grave and not with skeleton (unintelligible) music and culture and believe, skeleton (unintelligible) the edge of lamentation to the edge of the broken minds in those holes.

I picked up the soil from this lonely grave and blew it up to the wind to make reference one day. And I sing, (unintelligible) yeah, Africa. Sing now a freckle. Sing loud and sing to the people.

Life that will give them something to the world and mark it just to take it from it. And then when there (unintelligible) African music will turn into the music of the people. And the people's music, by the people's culture, and only one will look like a mountain reaching across the top of (unintelligible).

Sing, Africa sing. Africa sing. Africa sing... It's the illusions of a (unintelligible). (Singing in foreign language)

NEARY: Thanks so much. That's great.

Mr. MAHLASELA: It's difficult singing with the headphones on.

NEARY: I wanted to ask you. I know that when you were young like traditional music was banned on the radio in South Africa. And now you're really trying to get young people to play traditional instruments again, right?

Mr. MAHLASELA: Oh, yes. The foundation that I've launched in 2000 under my name, Vusi Mahlasela Music Development Foundation. But it's more to encourage students and musicians to start picking up folk traditional instruments like we're using the costa(ph) in Africa because during the time of apartheid our ideas were controlled quite a lot by whites. They decided what goes in what.

And music (unintelligible) quality defaulted in some of the instruments. Those (unintelligible) force us to play it because they call it play unlisted because it was not tuned to the western instrument.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. MAHLASELA: And it was more of an insult for us. But I think it's very much important now to bring this balance. That's what I'm doing also with the foundation. And I've borrowed one of the slogans from one of my favorite African writer, (unintelligible) that Africa, teach your children ancient songs so that they should glorify the spirit of collective good.

And the spirit of collective good through music has been, ubuntu, humanity and morality (unintelligible), you know, to play. But not songs that glorify money or sex.

NEARY: You are very concerned, it sounds like, about the young people of Africa, that they understand their traditions and their history.

Mr. MAHLASELA: Very much so. But it's quite a challenge because, I mean, you can say, OK, here is an indigenous world-time instrument. You must learn to play it on there. They're like, no, I want to play guitar or keyboard. Why will I have to play something with just one string on it?

So you have to build an interest, you know, tell them the history about the instrument and everything and that will generate more interest for them to play.

NEARY: All right. Well thanks so much for being with us today.

Mr. MAHLASELA: Thank you.

NEARY: Vusi Mahlasela is currently touring nationwide with Acoustic Africa. His solo CD, Guiding Star, will be available in stores in February. You can see the remaining concert tour schedule and hear a couple of tunes at our Web site, npr.org/talk.

And if you're a music fan tonight streaming at npr.org you can hear Paul McCartney conduct the only U.S. performance of his new choral work. The Carnegie Hall performance will be available at npr.org starting at 7:30 Eastern Time.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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