When apartheid drew to a close, all facets of South African culture, once cruelly, stuntingly, divided, began to unite. Sadly, and possibly ironically, the barrier separating the two musical camps is the last to be broken down.
On one side, the fledgling “white” market, based on all the styles you’ll see aired on MTV, but with a hugely innovative, experimental and African touch, that goes by the misnomer South African Rock Music. These artists are struggling to make ends meet. Their gigs barely pay for their equipment and they have to scrounge for support to produce EPs. By and large, they hold down day jobs and try to fit a life in between rehearsals, gigs and work.
On the other side is the “black” market, which, given the limited spending power of the “black majority”, is surprisingly healthy. Music is as African as the Big Five, as much a staple of African life as maize meal. Music and song feature in celebration, in mourning, to uplift and to protest. During the years of apartheid, it was difficult for the establishment to censor the lyrics of African music, quite simply, because they could not understand the language. They could prevent concerts, but they could not and would not (because of the commercial value) stop people buying music.
In the decade since the apartheid laws have been repealed, very little gain has been made in bringing the two markets together. The “rock festival” culture ahs emerged in the “white” market, with annual events such as Up the Creek, Splashy Fen and the phenomenal OppiKoppi. As these festivals continue to grow and add Jazz/Blues sessions or stages, a small number of “black” artists are making ripples in the “white” market. Unfortunately, though, the reverse is not happening, and the audiences at the festivals, despite the success of non-white bands in the “white” market (particularly the nine collaboration and Brasse Vannie Kaap), are still predominantly white.
Vusi Mahlasela is one of the few artists to have developed significant appeal in both musical camps.
Born in Lady Selbourne, Pretoria, in 1965, Vusi grew up in Mamelodi. The Rand townships are a melting pot of African languages, as they house Africans from all corners of South (an increasingly, Southern) Africa. The residents, or indeed their parents or grandparents, were forced out of the rural poverty of the homelands to seek their daily bread from the mines.
“I’m sure I learned to sing before I could talk.” Says Vusi. He would sit in his grandmother’s shebeen listening to men singing. He was inspired to make his own guitar, out of tin cans and fishing line, and taught himself to play.
His grandmother’s shebeen would have brought affluence to the family and almost certainly paid for his formal guitar lessons at high school (itself a luxury for many black Africans, even today). At school, he appeared in the school productions, singing as a soprano even after his voice broke, and also formed his first vocal group. His vocal range would earn him the nickname The Voice.
By the age of 17, Vusi eschewed cover versions for his own compositions. Unsurprisingly, Vusi wrote of the injustice of his surroundings and began appearing at political ralleys and cultural events. This interaction with like-minded people saw Vusi join the Ancestors of Africa, a group of poets, actors and musicians.
This was the mid-80’s and the para-military South African Police were at their brutal height. Vusi tells of having to sign a piece of paper at the police station every week, just to attend church. Similarly, Vusi had to report to the police if he was to leave town. Thankfully, he did not let the police harassment get in his way.
In 1988, Vusi joined the Congress of South Africa Writers, which enhanced his confidence as a poet and a writer. He interacted with and was influenced by other artists and poets, making friends who would help him to develop creatively. He credits poet Lesego Rampolokeng, jazz and traditional artists Miriam Makeba and Philip Tabane and, particularly, Victor Java, who influenced him both lyrically and musically.
Two years shy of releasing his debut album, Vusi made his international debut, at London’s Zabalaza Festival in 1990. Clearly, Vusi was highly regarded by his peers, so perhaps it was his lyrical content that prevented him from publishing his songs until the new political broom had swept away a few of the shackles of apartheid. Recorded and released in 1992, When You Come Back was dedicated to those who had been exiled. The album is considered a South African classic and was released and acclaimed (within its small market) internationally.
Two weeks after casting his vote in the elections, Vusi played at the showcase gig celebrating the inauguration of the new president, Nelson Mandela. Later that year (1994), Vusi released his second album, Wisdom of Forgiveness, dedicated to ”the respect of all humanity with music to fight crimes and injustices in their Era of Hope.” He had collaborated with Congress of South African Writers friend Lesego Rampolokeng, and with revered guitarist, Louis Mhlanga. The latter, actually a Zimbabwean, is a legend on the South African music scene.
Wisdom of Forgiveness earned Vusi a nomination for Best Male Vocalist at the SAMA (South African Music) Awards. The KORA All Africa Music Awards were more generous, nominating him for Best South African Artist and Best Video. Home praise in the bag, Vusi hit the road.
In 1996, Vusi played Europe, including the Dranouter Festival in Belguim, as well as the USA. His North American debut was in Los Angeles at the House of Blues, with none other than The Wailers. He has also toured to the Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia, Denmark, Finland and Reunion. Additionally, he has played festivals in Sweden, France, Germany, Austria and at the Tribute to Princess Diana Concert in England. Back home, he has opened for Joan Armatrading, UB40 and Ismael Lo.
Silang Mabele (Tswana for “crush the corn”, but better translated as “let’s get to work”) was released in October 1997. Like many born into the urban townships, Vusi is multilingual. On Silang Mabele, he sings in six languages, telling his countrymen to knuckle down and make our country work. ”We celebrated when our leaders and culture returned from exile. When conflict was expected we applied the wisdom of forgiveness. After celebration and forgiveness, the time has come to produce. Silang Mabele is a call for unity to fight poverty.”
The album sees Vusi spread his wings musically, embracing almost as many styles as he does languages. As ever, Vusi has used collaborators; Walter Chakela, Lisa Combrink and old friend Lesego Ramplokeng assisted lyrically. Vusi also drew on the best musicians South Africa had to offer. Further acknowledgement came from Vusi's peers, and he scooped up the 1998 SAMA Awards for Best Male Vocalist and Best Album.
Vusi has played alongside South African songstress Laurika Raunch at the 1998 and 1999 Samekoms/Kopano (“unity”) shows, with Ismael Lo at a charity gig in 1999 and, later that year, in a one-off show, highly regarded American Steel percussionist Andy Narell jammed along with Vusi.
While treading the international stage path, Vusi became a festival regular, as one half of Vusi & Louis (Mhlanga). Vusi & Louis also played the local club circuit, enhancing their foothold in the “white” market. The Bassline is one of Johannesburg’s premier live venues and the location of the recording of 1999’s Vusi & Louis – Live at the Bassline. (Sugardrive followed suit recording their own live album, in the circle.......... at the same location.) The album, born almost out of popular demand, features two voices and two guitars; two immense talents and a heavy shake of passion.
2000's Miyela Afrika again features a who's-who of South African musicians. Louis Mhlanga is joined by Tsepo Tshola, Sipho Hot Stix Mabuse and American Andy Narell. This album also contains songs in six languages, although this time there is no mention of lyrical collaboration. The album is dedicated to "the living spirit of the African Renaissance. With full respect to the statement by Ngugi wa Thiongo: 'Africa teach your children the ancient songs and glorify the spirit of collective good'." Vusi also gives "special thanks to the people of Mamelodi" and from the English lyrics at the very least, it is clear that they were close to his heart while writing.
When You Come Back ~ 1992
Wisdom of Forgiveness ~ 1994
Silang Mabele ~ 1997
Vusi & Louis - Live at the Bassline ~ 1999
Miyela Afrika ~ 2000
Featured on the Dave Matthews Band album Everyday (2001)
(Dave Matthews is a big fan of Vusi's.)
Also featured on Compilation Albums:
Mandela Soundtrack (Oscar nominated)
1996's Homegrown Red Cross fundrdaising album
2002's Amandla! (A Revolution in Four Part Harmony) Soundtrack
Music available at http://www.kalahari.net