Vusi Mahlasela can truly be considered a perfect son of the South Africa Nelson Mandela believed in, the ‘Rainbow Nation’. In other words, those of the renowned writer and 1991 Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, ‘his tender and strong voice was ours, South Africa’s. He sings our changes, our achievements as a free people, and our personal joys and sorrows’.
The best proof of it are the themes of Mahlasela’s albums and the time of their respective releases. When you come back, his official debut work, came out in 1992, when the country was still in the middle of difficult negotiations for the transition to democracy: it included many of the songs Mahlasela composed in earlier years, celebrating the liberation struggle. This choice reflected a widespread feeling of that time: the ‘long walk to freedom’ still was not over, and the memories of a grim past were even too fresh.
Mahlasela, since many years a member of artistic circles on the apartheid regime’s watchlist, such as the poetry group Ancestors of Africa and the Congress of South African Writers, could hardly have behaved differently from what he did, spreading the word of the liberation struggle through his lyrics. ‘He was a voice during the revolution, a voice of hope, like a Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan of South Africa’, US musician Dave Matthews – born in SA and a future collaborator of Vusi – said years later. When Mandela was called to the helm of the republic, Mahlasela found himself to be perfectly in touch with the national hero: not only was he among those called to perform at his inauguration ceremony, but, in that same year 1994, he released an album whose title summarized in a few words the new president’s attitude: Wisdom of forgiveness.
As a result, the fame of the Sotho singer and songwriter was further boosted: a rather unimaginable scenario for the boy that Mahlasela (born in 1965 in the Mamelodi township, on the outskirts of Pretoria) used to be. The son of a shebeen bar holder, he learned to love music by hearing the customers singing and taught himself to play on a guitar made from tin cans and a fishing line and now, decades later he had become a star at a nationwide level and a sort of bard of the hopes of an entire people.
Mahlasela, however, was not a man to sing the same single note always: in 1997, when the time for Mandela as a president was nearly over, his third album sounded as a new call for South African to make their country work, because the time for praise songs alone was over. It was titled Silang Mabele, which means ‘crush the corn’. This was followed by a compilation of his best songs, titled The Voice, which made Mahlasela’s name known also in the USA. More albums followed – recorded both in studio and live – until Say Africa was released in 2010.
As the previous ones, it is permeated with the thought and values of the new South Africa, such as ubuntu, which Mahlasela describes in this way ‘it is about forgiveness, reconciliation and also about the redistribution of knowledge, morals and skills’. This fidelity to deeply rooted experiences and cultures can be truly considered the main feature of all his albums and the common element in the different stages of his career. As he said once, Vusi has been ‘writing those songs all my life’. Their meanings, he explained ‘have evolved, but the overall universal messages remain the same. I sing of love, of freedom, of the human struggle’.
Also in Say Africa Mahlasela keeps an eye on the issues he, his country and continent are currently facing, such as the feeling of being lost in an increasingly complicated world, and the consequent need of a place one can truly call home, as in the title-track (‘Airports and railway stations with a ratpack and guitar / the languages and the places change and the sky has different stars / I may be walking through the streets of a city called London / but the dust on my boots and the rhythm of my feet and my heartbeat say Africa’). Ro Yo Tshela Kae, on the other hand, is a prayer to the Lord about the hard times society is facing and the ‘economy confusion’ no one is able to explain, and Conjecture of the Hour stigmatizes the current way of thinking, centered on ‘leisure’ and ‘material plenty’, asking people to reject it because it has ‘destroyed morality’.
These and other themes are addressed by Mahlasela with rather simple lyrics, in which more attention is put to the message they are meant to convey than to the form, and the same can be said of musical structures. With Say Africa, the singer and songwriter proves once more his great ability in mixing genres, but he carefully avoids experimentalisms, distancing his ‘African folk’ from other examples of world music. This choice has a motivation which can be best expressed, again, in Vusi’s own words: ‘I want my music to be accessible to every listener because I know that I really have something to say in terms of removing thorns from people, thorns that really make us unaware that we are bleeding, like pain, grief, jealousy and so on’. Without any doubt, he succeeded, and by listening to any of his albums, the audience can become well aware that, as Nadine Gordimer once said, Vusi simply ‘sings as a bird does: in total response to being alive’.