If you are ever transiting through Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport the Washerman’s Dog recommends keeping enough time up your sleeve for a leisurely browse through the music store. You’ll find music of every sort from every region and country in Africa and of course the South African section is fully stocked with a thousand treasures. Tonight’s post shines the light on one of that country’s most loved contemporary singers: Vusi Mahlasela.
Vusi Mahlasela was born with a voice as sweet as any, and in the words of Nadine Gordimer, “sings as a bird does: in total response to being alive.”
He was born in a township near Pretoria and raised by his grandmother in the same township, Mamelodi, where he still lives. As a boy he listened to his grandmother sing traditional ‘night songs’ (ingomabusuku) and constructed his first guitar from oil cans and fishing lines. In high school he got his first lessons on a real instrument and was soon playing covers in small venues around Pretoria. Growing disenchanted with singing the songs of others, Vusi, took a turn at writing his own and soon found himself capturing the times and captivating audiences with tunes about politics, injustice, unity and forgiveness.
The late 80’s were tumultuous times in South Africa. Apartheid was beginning to show its cracks. Vusi and other members of the artists’ collective, Ancestors of Africa, were singled out for special ‘attention’ and frequently harassed by the police and other apartheid authorities. Still Vusi kept refining his art, playing at bigger more prominent venues. In 1990 he got his break by playing in Europe and his first album When You Come Back went on to become a beloved classic in South Africa. In 1994 he sang at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President and in the intervening years has go on to win a swag of awards both at home and internationally.
Vusi’s music has been called everything from modern folk to township jazz. He sings in English and several South African languages including his native, Sotho. He’s an accomplished acoustic guitarist but surrounds himself with outstanding electric musicians and supporting vocalists. A Jungle of Questions from 2002 is a delicious slice of urban jazz. The songs are uplifting (Mother Agriqua), swinging (Tswang, Tswang, Tswang) and beautiful (How Can It Be?). The playing, by the Proud People’s Band, especially lead guitarist Paul Majoro and horn player Moses Mafiri, is masterful throughout. Mahlasela’s singing, as expected, is heavenly.
2. Tswang, Tswang, Tswang
5. Gumba, Gumba
6. Vulani Amasango
8. People’s Doctor
9. Mother Agriqua
11. Mma Modiane
15. How Can It Be?
16. Meeting of the Waters?