Music and History with Vusi Mahlasela

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South African singer and guitarist Vusi Mahlasela grew up in a small township during apartheid. He talks about that, his turbulent teen years, and his time as a member of the outlawed African National Congress.


What you're hearing now is the Voice, as he's known in South Africa -guitarist, poet and songwriter Vusi Mahlasela.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VUSI MAHLASELA (Singer): (Singing) Every time you're in my dream, I close my eyes and you're there.

MONTAGNE: If you saw last year's Oscar-winning South African film "Tsotsi," you'd have heard a half dozen of his songs. It's music borne of his life in a rough township much like the one in the film. Vusi Mahlasela is in America now, on tour with his new CD. He brought his guitar into our studio to share some music and some memories.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAHLASELA: (Singing) Every time (unintelligible)...

MONTAGNE: Vusi Mahlasela still lives in a township of Mamelodi where he was raised. Like most South Africans, his family was poor. He made his first guitar out of tin and fishing line. And at the height of apartheid in June of 1976, Mamelodi was one of the places where riots broke out in what became a kind of children's revolution, That's because grownup leaders of the African National Congress were all in prison, in exile or dead.

When you say you had a happy childhood, I think there's a lot of people possibly - especially in America - who think how - you know, under apartheid, how could anybody have a happy childhood? But, of course, that's not true.

Mr. MAHLASELA: Of course, I mean, while I grew up of being a happy kid - I grew up at home, there was quite a lot of music, and my grandmother also owned a shebeen . I think in America, you'll call it the speakeasy.


Mr. MAHLASELA: Which quite a lot of, you know, people used to come there. And, of course, I mean, going to church, and then there was just quite lot of singing and weddings, parties and all that. Being young that time, you know, one didn't, like, really realize that, you know, there was those, you know, imbalances in the country. But, of course, they knew the township - it's only black people who will take a train sometimes, maybe once to town with my mother, my grandmother.

And then that's when you see white people once a month until, you know, this 1976 came. That's when, you know, one started, you know, realizing that, you know, there is something wrong here. And then we asked quite a lot of questions, and then that's how I became involved.

MONTAGNE: You know, at that time - you're talking 1976 and that uprising, a very, very historic moment. You were just a kid. You were about, what, 11 years old at that time?

Mr. MAHLASELA: Very much so, but I used to go through these political gatherings, political rallies and all that. And all the time, I'll see people, you know, reciting, then some people will be beating drums at the back, and I ask, what are they doing? And I said, no, this person is reciting poetry and then they bring it over, you know, the background of music. And then I join the poetry group called the Ancestors of Africa, that's where my political education started them.

(Soundbite of song, "Sower of Words")

Mr. MAHLASELA: (Singing) This time we heard about you, it was said you were more than seen closing from one shebeen to the next...

MONTAGNE: This song, "Sower of Words," recalls the fight against the fight against apartheid. And it's a tribute to a much admired black power poet of the time named Ingoapele Madingoane. Vusi Mahlasela weaves his lyrics with the words of the poet. He's joined on this song by another South African - Dave Matthews.

(Soundbite of song, "Sower of Words")

Mr. DAVE MATTHEWS (Singer, Guitarist, Songwriter): (Singing) You were so alone at the oil company, by this side was the wild horse of (unintelligible). Sower of that kind.

MONTAGNE: By the time he was a teenager, Vusi Mahlasela had joined the ANC's Youth League. He was often chased and arrested by the authorities, until one night, his grandmother said no more. She armed herself with the only weapon she had, a pot of boiling water, and waited for the police to arrive.

Mr. MAHLASELA: And they knocked, and my grandmother switched off all the lights in the house, and she opened the kitchen door, and she was very angry. You know, and she told the police, you know, Vusi's here. I don't think you're going to take him this time, you know. I'm tired of you having to come here, you know, harassing us, and I'm tired of this and I've got a bowl here full of boiling water.

The first one who comes in here, he will get it. And they left. You know, and to think that she was very, very, very courageous, and not only just her - many other women also in South Africa.

MONTAGNE: You have a guitar there with you. Maybe you would play us the song that's on the CD.

Mr. MAHLASELA: Yeah. This song is called, "Thula Mama" which is dedicated, of course, to all the women in South Africa who refused to dwindle in the midst of apartheid at that time. And also to my grandmother, as well.

(Soundbite of song, "Thula Mama")

Mr. MAHLASELA: (Singing in foreign language) Thula mama, thula mama, thula mama, thula mama. Through the midst of the tears in your eyes on my childhood memories. I know the truth in your smile. I know the truth in your smile. Piercing through the gloom of my ignorance. That is a mama lying down sleeping, (unintelligible), and the heart crying. Tomorrow is going to better, mama. Thula, don't you cry my mama. (Singing foreign language). Aha, Thula mama.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. MAHLASELA: Thank you everyday.

MONTAGNE: South African musician Vusi Mahlasela. His new CD is called "Guiding Star." And let's leave the last word to a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Nadine Gordimer, of "The Voice." She wrote, he sings as a bird does in total response to being alive.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAHLASELA: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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