Peter Machen
9 minute read
2 Oct 2008

From Vusi Mahlasela with love

Peter Machen

South African superstar Vusi Mahlasela will be playing at Awesome Africa in two weeks time. PETER MACHEN speaks to him about the state of the world.

On his latest album, 2006’s Naledi Ya Tsela, Vusi Mahlasela cries out to the world, singing in tongues. The title means “guiding star” in English, and in its mix of languages, musics and planetary concerns, it is a truly global album, giving an emphatic shift of meaning to the term “World Music” – music of the world about the world. Recorded on “farms, in lounges and other places” with legendary producer Lloyd Ross, the album features the very cream of South African musical talent, from Chris Letcher to Lesego Rampolokeng, Mabi Thobejane to Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Dave Matthews, with Mahlasela at the centre.

Mahlasela says that people have criticised the album as kitschy. And I know what they mean – and indeed Mahlasela also knows what they mean. The album is gorgeously produced and the songs are very deeply beautiful in quite obvious ways. But immediately under that twinkling surface is a world of profound substance infused with a humanity that is tangibly spiritual, both in the music and in Mahlasela’s heart-breakingly beautiful voice.

And so when Vusi talks about his God and his religion, I don’t take him up on the matter, because I know, from his music and from seeing him sing, that the God he is so clearly channelling is an inclusive God, more concerned with spirituality and morality than with dogma. And I know in an unstrange way, that Vusi Mahlasela’s God is also my god, despite the fact that I profess not to have one – at least not in any conventional sense.

I open our conversation by talking about the fact that, on Naledi Ya Tsela, like much of his music, there is a central concern of love and also morality. These themes, made easily evident in the song lyrics and on the sleeve notes, are overriding. There’s a whole lot of love. Mahlasela acknowledges this but emphasises that there are a lot of songs that have much more globally oriented messages. “So there are quite a lot of different subjects. My interest is at heart education so I want to educate in my songs.” But this education remains a moral and spiritual reaffirmation, rather than a purely intellectual one, despite the fact that his morality is often expressed in the form of critiques of economic and social systems.

In Chamber of Justice, he sings “In the distance I hear a rumble – the fall of Rome”. And in his intro notes to the CD, he talks about people being “guided by the star to bring back morality to the global village”. Does he think that as a global society we have in fact lost our moral way? “Very much so,” is his reponse. “Because there have been, you know, some leaders who, in the name of power, can influence other people to be like them.

“At the same time, the global village is filled with a lot of religious beliefs in which people follow in our traditions and things like that, and also wanting to maintain their languages, their culture. We are immigrating to a global village but the question is how much do we want to belong?”

He talks about the “floods and fires, tsunamis and storms” that we are experiencing as a result of global warming, which he says are a warning from God. “A lot of people are going to relocate, and move to more livable places. This is the reality now, and it’s pushing us even more into a global village where we have to, in some way, live together. But when we live together some people say ‘you know what – we can live together, but I still want to speak my language, still want to eat my food’. So there will need to be quite a lot of compromise, you know, and we will have to learn to learn from each other and honour each other.”

I ask him if he thinks that we are going to survive as a species on this planet. Does he think that we will still be here in 100 years’ time? And, as many people on the planet might, he invokes prophecy.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to the human species in that time period. But I do think that there is a new world that has been prophesied from the bible, and so I see that new world appearing in the future. But I think it will take at least a million years to get to that world. So now, I think God is giving us a message. There is still time for people to change. And I’m not trying to force the people into changing. I think we’ve been given grace. Given grace, in that we can change our ways and go back to morality, and try to find a way that we can find more grace and more mercy from God.”

Mahlasela thinks that if messages keep on knocking on people’s ears and they hear something about morality, it will help to counter the dark forces on the planet. “You know, all the bad things on television, the explicit sex that you see, music videos with women dancing half naked – things like that. In some way the evil is playing around a bit and laughing, so we need to challenge the evil in that way”.

And does he really think that we are experiencing the fall of Rome right now? “Yes, I think we are.” He stresses that changes takes place all the time, every minute, every second.

Mahlasela talks much about the glory of God. Of course on this planet there are other gods too. And so I ask him a simple question. Does he think that it’s possible to have true faith without having a religious belief?

“Very much so. If a man is thirsty, he has to go and drink water. That’s faith. And when you don’t see water around you, you’ll just go travel to look for water. That’s faith. And so everything that you believe will come to its manifestation. It’s like a constant prayer. So everyone has faith, in all walks of life.”

Naledi Ye Tsela feels very much to me like a global record, like a planetary record. Was that part of the intention? “Definitely so. There is that term ‘world music’. What is world music? We are making music all the time with people everywhere, all over the world.”

But on the other hand, he says, the songs themselves were like a guiding star. “The songs chose where they wanted to go.” He says that it was supposed to be an acoustic album, but the songs invited the layered texture that is so evident. And for those who miss the rawer feel of some of his earlier work, Mahlasela says, “I want my music to be accessible to every listener. I don’t want a particular audience.” His says that the different places he travels to are a major influence on his work, as is the resulting poly-linguistic approach. “I don’t have a problem with singing in different languages, because it’s a way of making my music more accessible.”

He says that he is prepared to take audiences wherever they want to go, but I think he simply takes them with him to the place that he was going anyway, which is, in a way, everywhere. And regardless of whether you understand the lyrics, the song somehow remains relevant. And, importantly for Mahlasela, he invariably explains his songs, both in his CD notes and in his live performances, though stopping short of pure didacticism.

He talks about the people who invariably approach him after gigs, who say that even though they may not understand the words, they nonetheless achieve an understanding of his message. “And it’s an incredible feeling – that music can do that.”

I ask whether, by this point in his career, he sees himself as an African musician or as a global musician. “Well, I don’t know,” is his response. “That is not for me to judge. People like yourself can make that judgment.” Instead he says, “Music just comes to me and I can only try to do justice to that. I don’t limit myself or say that I can’t mix a classical piece with mbaqanga. It is how the music flows through the spirit. That’s how God made me – and sometimes it has to be more like a ball of fire.”

When I speak to Mahlasela, he is about to leave for Germany to perform at a festival there. He will be playing with musicians from the States, as well as with Ian Herman of Tananas. He also has an eight-piece band with whom he will be performing at Awesome Africa. And he has a 10-piece band in Sweden that plays with him in Europe. He is also doing a project with a group of musicians from Mali and the Ivory Coast in a project called Acoustic Africa. In addition he has done a number of soundtracks, both for film and television, and is currently working with filmmaker Junaid Ahmed (who also shares songwriting credits on two songs on Naledi Ye Tsela) on a docu-drama called More Than Just a Game about soccer on Robben Island. Mahlasela says that working with such a wealth of talents feeds his own musical energy. He says, with some degree of understatement: “I don’t find myself stranded, work-wise”.

But Mahlasela’s ongoing success owes virtually nothing to South African radio stations. He talks about the situation in South Africa “where radio doesn’t play our music. And I’m not going to worry or cry or whatever. Let them continue doing those things to our country, these ‘payola’ things. Like on the first song on the album, Jabula, I mention payola. I sing in Zulu “How long are you going to be paying payola instead of lobola? When are you going to pay lobola because you’ve been paying payola for a long time.”

He thinks that there needs to be some kind of healthy debate about real local content on South African airwaves. He talks about a recent story in the Daily Sun about musicians having to pay to be played on the radio: an ongoing bribery. “I think that it has to be out in the open. Because this is uncalled for.”

What is important to Mahlasela is that wherever he goes people love his music. And, recalling the notion of karma that appears in most religions in various guises, he says, talking about our radio stations: “At some point it will catch up with them”.

•Vusi Mahlasela will be playing at Awesome Africa on September 30 at Midmar Dam.