|© SKepecs 2013|
by Susan Kepecs
Vusi Mahlasela’s concert Friday night, Feb. 15, at the Wisconsin Union Theater at The Sett, Union South, was a golden ode to Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Steve Biko and legions of other warriors who fought to free South Africa from apartheid. Mahlasela himself fought in that army – a humble poet of stripped-down mbaqanga and township jive, he’s called “The Voice” not just because he can sing like gangbusters, but because he gives voice to the movement for peace, freedom and justice in South Africa and around the world, following in the gigantic footsteps of Mama Africa, the late Miriam Makeba, who Mahlasela cites as one of his greatest influences. The ghost of Mama Africa was in the house Friday night, along with the stalwart spirits of other ancestors, both gone and living, who fill out Mahlasela’s musical lineage. But in a sense they’re our forerunners too, because ultimately we’re all children of Africa. That’s an empirical fact of human evolution.
Onstage it was just Mahlasela, a helluva guitarist, on an amped acoustic instrument (which he sometimes danced with as he played), accompanied by a backup guitar player whose name I didn’t catch and who often gazed at Mahlasela in apparent amazement, wielding an electric axe that he sometimes played like a bass, sometimes like a rhythm instrument and occasioualy like a second lead, harmonizing with Mahlasela’s double-thumbed melodies. Similarly, this second player sometimes sang on the chorus, providing bass counterpoint to Mahlasela’s incredible vocal range that flows from deep tenor to Motown-like falsetto, with an occasional low growl. The resulting, unmistakable township sound was as round and full as the summer sun.
Its about ubuntu, Mahlasela says of his songs. “If you don’t know what ubuntu means, Google it!” But before anybody could whip out an iPhone he went on, defining ubuntu as “the gift of Africa – the gift of everyday kindness, humbleness, tolerance, forgiveness, reconciliation, redistribution.”
This hopeful message, like the joyfulness of Mahlasela’s songs, seems poignantly at odds with the reality of today’s South Africa. It’s been fourteen years since Mandela, now 94, stepped down from his hard-won presidency. Raging inequalities persist, and violent police attacks on striking mine workers echo apartheid-era confrontations. But the luscious songs Malhasela sings in Zulu and Xhosa (including a couple of “click” songs) – interspersed with stories told in English so we could understand the meaning, if not the content, of the lyrics – should inspire us all to righteous revolution.
“In 1984, when Dr. Tutu won the Nobel Price,” Mahlasela says, “we were celebrating in Soweto – the United Democratic Front [a student-worker-church alliance closely tied to Mandela’s African National Congress]. I was there. Somebody in the crowd was carying a poster of a face. It was Zindzi Mandela, one of Nelson’s daughters, who read a letter by Nelson telling us to keep up the struggle. We found out that what she was carrying was a portrait of Mandela! We didn’t know how our leaders looked – they’d been imprisoned on Robben Island since before we were born. It was so exciting to see that picture! We were shouting ‘¡Viva Nelson Mandela! ¡Viva!’
|© SKepecs 2013|
And with that, Mahlasela launched into a big, joyful, grinning song for Mandela, head tossed back, fist raised in revolutionary salute. I was dying to stand up, raise my own fist, and dance. I’m sure others in the audience were, too, but Mahlasela commanded so much respect that nobody did.
Among Mahlasela’s other ubuntu tunes Friday night were “Sing, Sing Africa,” the ITV theme song during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa; “Say Africa,” the title cut off his latest CD, produced by Taj Mahal (ATO Records, 2011); the lovely “Woza,” a love song, also from Say Africa – classic township jive, smooth as silk, sweet as honey, edged with a smidge of soaring falsetto.
And “Thula Mama,” a song “to all the women in South Africa, and especially to my late grandmother who protected me as a young activist from the police.”
“I was 11 in 1976,” Mahlasela continued, explaining the story behind this last tune. “On June 16 there was a student uprising – the youth changed the politics of South Africa. I joined the movement. The police rounded us up every year on the anniversary of the uprising. My grandmother protected me – when the police came she turned off all the lights in the house and opened the kitchen door and she told them ‘Vusi’s here and you’re not going to take him! I’ve got a pot of boiling water and the first one who comes in here gets it!’
And then, dancing with his guitar, he launched into the song. It ends with a happy, catchy, looping refrain – “my song of life, my song of love” – which, along with thunderous applause, accompanied his exit from the stage.