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Vusi Mahlasela: a singer, guitarist, storyteller extraordinaire

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Monday May 16, 2011

from The Daily Maverick

Vusi Mahlasela: a singer, guitarist, storyteller extraordinaire

By Emily Gambade

Many singers, famous and never-to-be-known, say their songs are “simple”. They call themselves “simple” people. Not simple in the pejorative sense, but simple in the moral sense of uncomplicated and heartfelt values and principles. These are the troubadours of our time, the travelling minstrels of collective memories. The Vusi Mahlaselas of modernity.

“Ubuntu is a great gift from Africa, it is about love, forgiveness, empathy and sympathy. It talks about redistribution of morals and knowledge. Without those things, without morality, knowledge and the sharing of it, what would we be? Where would our dignity lie?” These are the powerful words of Vusi Mahlasela. A night listening him is a night of music, stories and sharing. A night by the invisible fire, with the man who poetises about life, his guitar singing achingly poignant melodies. “The Voice”, joyful and memorable, has returned, with two appearances at Market Theatre in Johannesburg on Thursday and Friday, with Brazilian musician Gilberto Gill. And he has just released his latest album, “Say Africa”.

Vusi Mahlasela is not just your everyday musician; he is a griot sans West African exclusivity, a voice telling stories of the past, a repository of the struggle, while his fingers are strumming the guitar. His optimism and never-ceasing humour carries the memories of a time where oppression of black South Africans brought killings, marches, fights and many funerals. Hope, too.

Born and raised in Mamelodi, where he still resides, the Vusi taught himself music on a guitar made out of cooking-oil cans. Not really because he was an entrepreneur, but because he was a poet with strength and love firing his heart and his voice.

“Through songs and music, we can highlight the struggle, parts of our history, where we are coming from… It is just about giving some kind of enlightenment to the people. During the time of the struggle, we were given music so that we should not despair. I would not say that I’m carrying a flag, you know, because there were many who were doing this before me, in the light of Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and not only in music, in writing, in theatre. Those who have been carrying the torch, addressing the problems that were affecting South Africa.”

Yet, his voice shines a torch on yesterday’s and today’s issues, looking at South Africa with a scrutinising eye.

“Music is life. It is important, in music, to address certain fears. Whatever it is that is, really, dearly important to us, as people. And today, well, this is a problem for me, under the post-apartheid South Africa, that question is: Okay, what do you write about now? But it is still relevant right now. (Looking at the people) we have voted for, and (considering) myself as a cultural worker, I have to be there like a watchdog and pinch those who are not doing the right things. And then I have to say, through my music, no, this is not right. Especially when it comes to talk about love. Politicians think that love is not really… Not for them, only for religious people. But if (political) parties can understand that love is… that’s why we are here; with love things can really get more positive. It’s a shame politicians are not using the simple concept of love, you know, it’s quite disturbing.

Read the full article here