Vusi Mahlasela – Afrofolkist

“I used to hear the guys singing acapella at my grandmother’s shebeen (illegal ‘booze shop’) in her back yard and grew to love music from there. I met some real characters. I made my own guitar out of a paraffin tin and fishing lines”

Vusi, among other injustices, you were incarcerated in the era of apartheid. Can you tell us what it was like for you as an artist at that time?
I joined ‘Ancestors of Africa’ after the June 16th uprising, we would share poetry and it gave us access to political platforms. I also joined the cultural side of the ANC and every June 16th we commemorate the victims that were shot in the uprising. We had our poetry confiscated, which gave us more reason to fight, not just for political reasons.

“It’s so important to forgive as this is the route to inner calmness and if you don’t then it is you who suffers the most”

Your first album ‘When You Come Back’ celebrates the return of exiles at the beginning of the 90s…
I had a political platform as part of ‘Congress of South African Writers’ and was invited to the Zabalaza Festival in London in 1990 which had been organised by the ANC. All sorts of people (writers, musicians, photographers etc) got involved in the workshops. They were making a documentary about the exiles living in London, (highlighting their fears of returning to South Africa) and the producers heard my song ‘When You Come Back’ and wanted to use the song so they took me to Shifty studios to record it and this is how my first recording happened. They also called the documentary ‘When You Come Back’.
Your album Wisdom of Forgiveness explores how South Africa chose to move on after apartheid. How did you find it in you as a person to forgive? Is there something in the nature of South Africans that lets them deal with things in this way or was it the unique leaders of the time?
In 1994 we went to the polls and it was the first celebration of the return of the exiles. Wisdom of Forgiveness celebrated the champions of forgiveness such as Mandela, Tutu and the ultimate champion of non-violence, Gandhi. Yes, South Africans are forgiving people. It’s so important to forgive as this is the route to inner calmness and if you don’t then it is you who suffers the most. Now we are celebrating 10 years of freedom since we went to the polls, we have followed the non-violent strategy.

“Where lies the dignity of man if there are still people who have lost their jobs and their land has been taken?”

Your third album Silang Mabele deals with what happens to a country after all the horror and it realises that it must function again. What has gone wrong and what has gone right since the end of apartheid?
Silang Mabele literally means ‘crushing the corn’ — it’s about getting down to work, getting the country going and moving forward. What has gone right is that the democracy is winning although it is still young and very fragile and needs protection.
What is wrong is that the debt created by the last government is still in place. This goes for the whole of Africa, if it were able to clear its debt then it would be able to make a more speedy recovery.
What else is wrong is that we elected leaders to get democracy who have only used their position for their own personal gains but this corruption is being looked into by the government to bring an end to this. Leaders need to be more like shepherds (like Mandela) who look after their flock above anything else.
Please tell us a little bit about your later albums and the ideas they explore…
Miyela Africa means ‘Don’t Cry Africa’ which celebrates Africa and hopes to educate our children into where they come from and where they are going and to encourage them to understand that people died for their privileges and that this is their time and they must take pride in their contributions.
Jungle of Questions is about bringing about a healthy debate into the dignity of man. Not all answers are right. Where lies the dignity of man if there are still people who have lost their jobs and their land has been taken? We live in a democratic society so how can this reflect any respect of human life? Where is the respect when someone will not only hijack you but kill you too? Healthy questions should be debated.

Why ‘World’ music — why give music a label like that when music is music? I sing Folk music

Your music has an uplifting and even a healing quality about it. Is this something you feel music should have?
Very much — its purpose is to make people think about morality. My music has the message of glorifying the spirit of collective good. I sing about ‘Ubanto’ which translates as ‘spirit of humanity’. We need to honour each other as people and give morality its proper place in society rather than glorify money or sex.
Can you tell us about your strong local links in the Mamelodi community in Pretoria?
I’m very happy there and believe in the strong community there — you don’t die of loneliness there! I love it and will always stay there. I’m involved in many projects there:

  • Anti-rape Crisis Centre — people against human abuse
  • Epilepsy South Africa — to give courage to those with epilepsy (I suffer from mild epilepsy)
  • Vusi Mahlasela Music Development Foundation — set up in 2000 to look into teaching music and encourage folk traditions and the playing of traditional instruments. It is also to address the business side of music eg contracts. There is a performance once a month.
  • As part of this I’ve set up a refugee project to try and address the problem of xenophobia. It encourages local musicians to work with refugees who have two weeks of work to put together a performance.

We have a global readership from East to West and North to South. Have you a message for Fly readers?
Not a message but a question. Why ‘World’ music — why give music a label like that when music is music? I sing Folk music.
October/November Tour of UK
Thursday 28 Cambridge Corn Exchange
Friday 29 Hull City Hall
Saturday 30 Norwich Theatre Royal
Sunday 31 Peterborough Cresset
Tuesday 2 Croydon Fairfield Halls
Wednesday 3 Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall
Thursday 4 Poole Lighthouse
Saturday 6 Cheltenham Town Hall
Sunday 7 Salisbury City Hall
Monday 8 London Barbican
Tuesday 9 Basingstoke Anvil
Wednesday 10 Truro Hall For Cornwall
Friday 12 Carlisle Sands Centre
Saturday 13 Edinburgh Usher Hall
Sunday 14 Aberdeen Music Hall
Tuesday 16 Inverness Eden Court Theatre
Wednesday 17 Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Thursday 18 Coventry Warwick Arts Centre
Friday 19 Chatham Central Theatre
Saturday 20 Brighton Dome Concert Hall
Sunday 21 Wolverhampton Civic Hall
Wednesday 24 Manchester Bridgewater Hall
Thursday 25 Bradford St.George’s Hall
Friday 26 Llandudno North Wales Theatre
Saturday 27 Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
Sunday 28 Watford Colosseum
Monday 29 High Wycombe Swan

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