Musician Vusi Mahlasela

South African singer-songwriter discusses his new album and explains the concept of Ubuntu.

Dubbed "The Voice," singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela uses music and words to inspire change. He was born, raised and still lives in South Africa and taught himself guitar with a home-made instrument. By age 17, he was a well-known performer, but his fan base expanded with his appearance in the documentary Amandla! and on its soundtrack, which led to a recording contract. He was also seen by some one billion people in FIFA's World Cup kick off concert. Despite his busy touring schedule, Mahlasela finds time to partner with several nonprofits.


Tavis: Vusi Mahlasela is a legendary South African singer-songwriter and poet who is known in his homeland simply as “The Voice.” He is here in the U.S. on tour in support of his latest project. It’s called “Say African.” The disc is from the label founded by our friend Dave Matthews and was recorded, for that matter, at Matthews’ studios.
Before we get to all that, here is Vusi and Dave performing the song, “Everyday.”
Tavis: This project, Vusi, is quite a collaboration. We mentioned Dave Matthews; our friend Angelique Kidjo is on the project; produced by Taj Mahal. You got everybody on this project.
Vusi Mahlasela: Oh, yes, but Mr. Dave is not on this one.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, but his record label, yeah.
Mahlasela: Yeah. Mr. Taj Mahal is the producer, yes, and Angelique Kidjo was very much happy to, you know, to produce this. At first, of course, it was supposed to be Mr. Kip Moore, but he sort of like have his album released and then working on it.
Yeah, but finally I think, you know, we came up with the name because I wanted somebody who’s gone through that kind of a folkish, blues. Mr. Taj is so knowledgeable with African music and has worked with quite a lot of African artists like Toumani Diabaté and [unintelligible] and so on. So it was very great to work with him.
Tavis: You like doing collaborations?
Mahlasela: Yeah. I like doing that. Of course, I think only if those collaborations are sort of like connecting with the right forces; the people who sort of like are really into what I’m doing, and it’s great.
Tavis: When you say “into what you are doing,” what is it that you – how would you describe what it is that you are doing with your music these days? I ask that because I read somewhere where you said this is not so much an album as it is a campaign. So what did you mean by that? What are you doing with your music gift these days?
Mahlasela: Well, more of sort of like really giving hope to the people, you know, giving that kind of enlightenment about ourselves as people that we need to honor each other. I think through music, you know, giving hope, bringing messages of hope through music. I think I like to work with artists who are sort of really doing that, you know, and to the cause of like a little humanness.
Tavis: How important, then, for you – on some level, it’s important for everybody, but how important for you, Vusi, the lyrical content? The actual lyrics of what you’re singing, how important is that to you?
Mahlasela: I think the lyrics are very much important. You know, people really can hear what is you’re feeling, what you really want to say, you know. Of course, when they’re supported by music and the melodies like really they can go with, it’s really great. I think through the poetry that I’ve sort of really fused into music, it has really helped quite a lot, you know, for my music.
Then I’ve been listening also to quite lot of musicians who really inspired me like the Chilean poet and guitarist, Victor Jara, who was using quite a lot of his message through poetry and music and then he was killed by the forces of the state and they chop his guitar so that he could not play. People like him who have really inspired me and also back home from Mamelodi where I come from, [unintelligible] and so on.
I think the lyrics plays quite a lot of important role, you know. It is more like, you know, a language. As we say in African, [speaking African], “a person is a language” and, if you’re using the language in a very special way, that can sort of likely transcends some of the other important messages that people really wanted to hear dearly.
Then I think, through there, my lyrics are more about, you know, focusing a lot on thorns that really make us bleed and the way that we’re bleeding with the thorns; thorns like fear, power, grief, jealousy. And sometimes we’ve got to be romantic as well and speak about love. They are also more to global message as well, the subjects that I’m getting in my music.
Tavis: When it came to developing and defining your own language and finding your own voice, what came first for you artistically, creatively? The poetry or the music?
Mahlasela: Well, I’ll first say it’s the music, yeah. I’ll first say it’s the music. I grew up, you know, playing music at home in Mamelodi Township. I was raised by my grandmother and then there used to be quite a lot of music there because my grandmother owned a shabeen, here in America, what you would call a speakeasy, and they used to be quite –
Tavis: – a club [laugh].
Mahlasela: There used to be quite a lot of music there and some musicians would also come and play there. We grew up also listening to quite a lot of Motown, you know, artists.
Yeah, we listened to quite a lot of American music when I was growing up because America kept shipping things, you know, during the time of Apartheid while other countries [unintelligible] boycott. But is only here in America where they kept shipping and that’s how we get to have more of the Motown artists that I’ve loved very much.
I built up my first guitar. You know, it was more of a toy for me to play with. I didn’t know that one day it would take me to this height. At the age of seven, me and my friends, we had self-made instruments.
My neighbor, who gave me my first guitar, used to work the nightshift at the railway station. He would be sleeping during the day and me and my friends would be playing the music, so he gave us a name. So the name of my band was The Pleasure Invaders.
Tavis: [Laugh] The Pleasure Invaders because you all wouldn’t let him sleep [laugh]. Beyond the music – you mentioned you were raised by your grandmother.
Beyond the music, what do you recall about life in South Africa as a child and in any way, I would assume so, but your childhood and what you endured and what you went through, what you saw, vis-à-vis apartheid? How does that impact your gift, your music, your lyrics?
Mahlasela: Well, I’ll say that, of course, I grew up not knowing that there was imbalances or injustices in my country.
Tavis: You didn’t experience apartheid in the way that –
Mahlasela: – when I was young and then, of course, until 1976 came. I was 11 years old then. That was when there was the uprising, you know, where the students take it upon themselves – young, you know, taking it upon themselves that we’re gonna change this because of the language that was imposed on the Africans that they had to do everything in Africa, biology, mathematics and all of that. They said no way, what about our own languages?
And then it was not only that. In the townships, you know, we were sort of like really placed in sections according to our ethnic, you know, the Hutus, the Zulus, whatever they’ll will be, in different sections. And then I think it was really great in ’76, the students said no, this has to change. That’s when, you know, I started asking questions and that’s when my political education started.
Since from that time I was really involved in the African nation, our congress, the young organization, then I joined a poetry group called The Ancestors of Africa, which was supported by the late Dr. Fabian Ribeiro who was left by the people of Mamelodi where I come from and he was my political mentor. He also was assassinated by the forces of the state together with his wife, Florence, in 1980 for his activism.
Tavis: These experiences, do they work their way into your music?
Mahlasela: Very much so, very much so. Then sometimes it was really bad, you know, that some of the work that I’ve really written, you know, they were confiscated by the police and then it was like, whoa, man. But I hoped that everything that I write, I will sort of put it here, you know, and claim it so that, you know, if they take it, I have it.
I think one of the standing song that I sort of really recall and remember was “When You Come Back” which is my first CD. Yeah, I’ve been performing quite a lot on political platforms and political rallies and so on since.
Tavis: Tell me about this particular project. We mentioned earlier at the top that this is put out on Dave Matthews’ label. But tell me in short about the CD. What is “Say Africa?”
Mahlasela: Well, “Say Africa,” the song, I think, is more about, you know, my life as well. But there’s a friend of mine, we’ve penned on this together, Dave Goldblum, from South Africa in Port Elizabeth. But it’s also more about the life of a troubadour, you know, traveling all over. You know, the places sometimes you wake up, you don’t know where you are.
And then you just feel like, oh, man, you miss Africa because there are such really great things really happening down there in Africa, which is more that spirit of [speaking African], about every day’s caring, every day’s kindness. Yeah, it is very much important that, you know, we exported this because it was something that was there from the point of time.
When you see your neighbors’ children going hungry, you know, and then you have to like really do something about it. You know, caring and helping, whatever. While we have a program with prophets of doom, when they want to see this concept happening around here, they will give you the name and socialism and all. But it’s all about us. We’ve got that universal quality, all of us, of doing that, you know, as people to honor each other and care for each other.
Tavis: It’s a perfect note to end our conversation on. Since I see you got your guitar sitting next to you, I got about a minute. You want to play me out with something?
Mahlasela: Yeah.
Tavis: You grab that stick right quick. I’m gonna remind the audience what the CD is before we get to our friend, Melissa Leo, here, this Oscar nominee. The new CD from Vusi Mahlasela is called “Say Africa.” I can assure you that you’ll love it and should add it to your collection. That said, I got about 45 seconds, so, Vusi, take it away, sir.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm