This week on Art of the Song, we talk with South African singer, poet, master musician and inspiration for our times, Vusi Mahlasela. Vusi shares with us his profound message of hope, passion and creativity.
Viv: It’s a great honor and a privilege to be talking with Vusi Mahlasela. Thank you so much for joining us today Vusi.
Vusi: Thank you. Thank you every day.
Viv: Vusi, you began expressing yourself with music and poetry at a very young age and it also coincided with the escalation of apartheid in South Africa. Where did you find your optimism and your hope?
Vusi: I started first by playing the self-made guitar that I built using fishing lines and a container that used to contain cooking oil. It was just more of a toy for me to play with. I didn’t know that one day I’d be playing professionally like this. Of course I was doing my own songs and doing covers until I joined a group called “The Ancestors of Africa” which was a poetry group in Mamelodi which was founded by Dr. Fabian Ribiero who was political and also one of the men who gave me political dedication and also really inspired me. Again, it was after the 1976 apartheid June 16 uprising. I started trying to find out what was really happening in the country after that uprising. That’s when also my political dedication really started and some of my poetry and songs are shaped from that point.
Viv: I read in your literature that you felt that it was important to keep singing to honor those that you were walking with.
Vusi: Very much so because it was more like a torch to instill hope and just tell people not to despair in some way. I think singing and music really played an important role during the time of the struggle.
John: Can you explain how?
Vusi: Music was there at the heart of the struggle even before I was born. Music really filled people with hope until the time I came to understand what was really happening in our country and everything. There were so many revolutionary songs and other songs as well for other occasions. We had different songs that are more about praising the first rain and also the harvesting time. Special songs when a baby is born. There are special songs when somebody passes away. Songs to praise the chiefs. There was a lot of different types of music in that regard. I won’t be say that I’ll be carrying a flag to say that and all for me having to bring the protest music in some way. I’ve found that people who were doing that the likes of Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Abdulla Ibrahim. So we just joined in the movement in a way because I think, it is my opinion, that music plays an important role and I think music is the highest art form. Through music, it is a good vehicle to transport a message through it. Music is very important in that regard.
Viv: I have this impression that, from what we’ve learned about your life’s work, that fear was a great oppressor of the inner freedom that you speak about that music brings about and dance brings about. What role has your creative expression played in your journey to freedom?
Vusi: Ranging from those times that I was talking about after 1976 and everything, it was through a lot of painful experiences and that we had to really sing and make fun of ourselves in some way just to feel better. The creative process, in some way for me, it was shaped deeply when I joined the Congress of South African Writers in 1988, where I met the Nobel Prize Winner Nadine Gordimer, who was more like a mother to me, and many other writers like Lance Naber who helped with the songs on my new album, Guiding Star. Then also concentrating more on the reality about what was happening around us and also in our country so as to take the message outside so the people outside would know what is happening. So the song “Thula Mama” is also on the album Guiding Star and I would just dedicate it to all the women in South Africa and also to my grandmother, who played an important role for me during the time of apartheid.
John: Your new recording is called Guiding Star, how do you recognize your own guiding star?
Vusi: Well, it is through the territories that I was traveling where I have met a lot of people that throw back a positive energy. People coming up with positive responses after my performances, thanking me for the message that I am bringing to them because they really needed that with all the subjects that we were talking about: peace, reconciliation, forgiveness. There is so much more wisdom if we forgive and you become more free, but if you don’t forgive, you are the one who is suffering the most. People getting this message really take it into their hearts, but I also take positive energy from them. I think those territories where I’ve been traveling, it was with the help of my management and booking agent as well the record company. They know those places very well and I’m very happy that I met quite a lot of people with big hearts, very passionate about the reality and the issues that are really troubling us as people. Along the way as well, meeting some other artists who contributed with a lot of passion and selflessly to the album. Big thanks to Mr. Dave Matthews as well who really helped me to be released here in the States around 2003. And many others who really believed in me. It has been, in some ways, a very great experience, and under that guiding star has shown me the light and made me pass through all those roads to meet these beautiful hearts and beautiful minds and shaking many people’s hands as well.
Viv: It sounds like the Guiding Star became manifest through the people that you met along the road.
Vusi: Very much so, because it’s really confusing, or maybe frustrating because it is this big world. You’re going out there to places that you’ve never been before and though you’re excited, there is a really big question inside you–how will it be and will people really accept or appreciate my art and the message that I’m bringing to them? Of course, as I’m bringing it in different ways—meaning language-wise, because I sing in several different languages as well, but it has really helped to explain the songs. Even though I’m singing in a different language, people really loved my music and the message. Then getting really positive responses all the time and that gave me a pleasurable human feeling.
Viv: I’m interested that you chose to sing in many different languages on Guiding Star. Can you talk about your choice that way?
Vusi: Well it’s like the music decided what language I had to sing in. With some of them, depending on the feel, I preferred more of the Zulu language and then some of the folk/blues tunes I’ll put Sotho or Tswana and one with Saan, a song called “Our Sand” which is more about the Saan people or the Bush people, where we use the 6/8 feel of the music. I like also the clicks of the language they use, so the songs took shape in that regard, considering the beats of those people and also their languages as well. English is also part of this album as well. I think it was great all those people who contributed, they chose what traits they wanted to feel. Although, if I chose an artist who was coming as a guest, I want them to contribute on a track, I would call them out nicely and I was happy about the outcome.
Viv: Vusi, tell us a little more about your new CD Guiding Star.
Vusi: I was happy with it, it’s got quite a lot of variety of styles, with of course different themes and subjects. Recording the album had different phases. People who came to contribute unselfishly with a lot of passion in this album. Talking about the guest artists on the album who really did a wonderful job and of course thanking Mr. Dave Matthews, my friend, on “Sower of Words” and, of course, Xavier Rudd from Australia, because we’d been playing together in different places: Canada, Australia, and all that and then also concentrating quite a lot on global issues and also problems facing the aboriginal people that I came to learn that we shared a very painful history together. In that regard, he gave a lot of insight for me to open my eyes. Even though I’m free, but there are still people out today that their human rights are still being trampled on and we need to do something about that. These are the artists who are not just there for music and everything but then they are there and they always have open hearts and looking at other people’s problems, global and otherwise, so that we should be proud of ourselves and honor each other as people. It is a big thanks to them—to Xavier Rudd, Derek Trucks, Mr. Dave Matthews, Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who contributed on the album, the track “Heaven in My Heart”, and Mr. Black Moses from South Africa of the Soul Brothers, Jem also who is with ATO. Everybody from the booking agents to management and the ATO people and Sony/BMG in Africa. It has been a really great collective effort and I thank everybody for that. Guiding Star is that album which it’s got a soul. It’s not just music. There is a message that says something and there is soul and I think everybody who listens to it, it will serve as an eye-opener that we have to understand that we have guiding stars within the innermost parts of ourselves.
Viv: Vusi, I have a question about the impact of creative expressive, the impact of music. Do you think that we could actually sing a new culture into existence?
Vusi: Well, as much as I want to see that into practice, I think it is something that we need just to carry and not get tired of preaching that. In order to witness a world of cultural peace, there has to be tolerance and music does it very well, because music doesn’t know any boundaries. But I think it will be much more powerful if we start with our languages, because language plays an important role in society. If you learn to speak other people’s language, you learn to understand them, to love them, and also to understand their culture.
John: What’s now in the future for South African music?
Vusi: Well, there is hope. And the other question would be, after the post-apartheid South Africa, the singers like Vusi Mahlasela, what will be next considering what were we before protest music began. I think it’s still relevant even today so as to pinch those leaders or politicians who are not delivering. We need to be some watchdogs of some sort. And, of course, we need to create a platform where there can be an education, especially for our youth, myself, when I’m at home in South Africa, witnessing the ignorance that was coming from the youth, without the time to appreciate or understand where we come from. That the privileges and the rights that they’re enjoying, they didn’t just come by. People wept for, people died for those privileges they’re enjoying. So, in some way, they need some sort of a cultural revolution. This protest music or poetry and also the documentary film of Amandla!, I think those serve as a cultural revolution and as an education in that regard. But, also, for the future musically in South Africa, I think there is quite a lot of hope because there is a lot of young talent coming out and the good thing is that they read. They suss things out and there is internet and all that they can research so there is a big chance of seeing a lot of different types and also the talent of music being explored outside of South Africa, in different places all over the world.
John: It seems like some people have fallen under a spell that makes them believe that creativity is not in their reach. What would you say to them to break that spell?
Vusi: As much as we’ve been talking about a guiding star, I think we all have a guiding star in our lives, and it is just to shoot toward that innermost of ourselves to talk to that guiding star because I believe, for every one of us, there is a spirit that enables us to create. Though we don’t know the names of that spirit, what is important is to thank that spirit every day.
Vusi: Well put.
Viv: Vusi Mahlasela, thank you so much for being with us today. It’s really an honor.
Vusi: Thank you and God Bless.