Say Africaby Andy Davis / 17.12.2010
We’ve said a lot about the plethora of South African musicians emulating international pop, rock and hip hop sounds. It’s a trend that’s become entirely ubiquitous in local cultural production these days. Perhaps indicative of the influence of generation MTV, the growth of communication technology that means increasingly we take our cues from computer and TV screens, and hit radio formats, dominated by international (Western) product. What follows is snowballing generic mediocrity, trapped under a glass ceiling, that slowly robs us of our social moment. It’s a kind of cultural dislocation and historical amnesia. To paraphrase Brandon Edmonds, our culture lately is defined by the mimicry of stronger originals.
But if you were looking for a poster boy for original and relevant South African cultural production, you need look no further than Vusi Mahlasela.
Hugh Masekela, speaking about Louis Armstrong said he was “the all time homeboy” because, “he never finished a paragraph without mentioning his hometown of New Orleans. If you read any of the things that he said or anywhere that he talks, New Orleans always comes up.” In many ways you could say the same thing about Vusi Mahlasela’s relationship to his hometown of Mamelodi, and South Africa at large. Because despite being signed to Dave Matthews’ record label ATO and becoming a major global world music star – with a much bigger following abroad than at home – Vusi never compromises on his approach to the music he wants to make. Regardless of who he is collaborating with, Vusi bends them fastidiously to his music, which is firmly rooted in the poetic African Folk tradition of singer songwriting that blends traditional styles of mbaqanga, kwela, maskandi s’cathamiya. So you find global music industry heavyweights like Taj Mahal, Dave Matthews, Jem, Xavier Rudd, Josh Groban, Angelique Kidjo, working on music that’s rooted in Mamelodi.
Vusi’s music, lately, has become an act of cultural jiu-jitsu.
It’s refreshing because the vast majority of South African musicians would, and do, bend over backwards to suck on the global music industry’s hind teat, contorting themselves horribly to fit the ouevre of whoever they’re collaborating with and try get their snouts into the trough of international hit music. Rather, Vusi Mahlasela seems motivated to bring global music stars to Mamelodi and get them to play our music. It’s a strong cultural and political statement.
But really we should expect nothing less from the former political and cultural activist who during apartheid used his guitar and voice to become one of the most outspoken and principled voices of the struggle. Let’s look at the lyrics from “Red Song” from his debut album When You Come Back.
“Need I remind anyone that an armed struggle is an act of love…
Should I stop singing of love now that my memory is surrounded by blood?
Sister, why oh why do we at times mistake a pimple for a cancer?
So who are they who say no more love poems now?
I want to sing a song of love for that woman who jumped the fences pregnant and still gave birth to a healthy child.
Softly I walk into the embrace of this fire
That will ignite my love song
My song of love”
Visceral, relevant, real. Beautiful. Everything culture should be.
And he hasn’t let up on the new regime. As early as 1997 on his album Silang Mabele he was producing songs like “Africa’s Dying” lamenting the state of post revolution African corruption and dearth of leadership.
2000’s albums Miyela Afrika and Jungle of Questions with the Proud People’s Band pursued the same line of astute cultural activism and single track focus and dedication to producing music within the traditional African folk singer-songwriter niche he has pioneered.
His latest album Say Africa is, needless to say, rooted in the same tradition, even though it was recorded in Charlottesville USA and produced by the cult American bluesman Taj Mahal. The production literally sizzles. Vusi has collected an array of talented musicians around him. From Tananas drummer Ian Herman to Bakithi Kumalo (who played bass on Paul Simon’s Graceland) and guitarist Mongezi Ntaka. Add to this colabs with Angelique Kidjo and contributions from unsung guitar heavyweights like Oupa Mukhubela. The title track “Say Africa” is pure Vusi, and comes across as a personal affirmation, or manifesto, in light of his shifting reality as an international world music star.
“Stick sand stones and UN loans and passport controls
for countries that don’t exist
It’s a big world they have their own problems everywhere
And there’s gold in that clenched fist
People ask me where I’m from I say Mamelodi township
In a city called Tshwane meaning ‘we are the same'”
The whole album has a beautiful yet seemless amalgamation of African guitar styles with blue grass and Southern blues guitar work, and is often underpinned by a kettle drum two-step, but so flawlessly merged it’s hard to tell where the influences begin and end, because it always comes back to mbaqanga, penny whistles, s’cathamiya vocal harmonies, then a bit of kettle drum to the fore, marching, a fiddle, a maskandi riff, and the kind of insane guitar melodies that makes Dave Matthews hot. Maestro noodling. The Southern blues and blue grass influence is particularly present on tracks like “Woza”, “UMalume” and “In Anyway” where Taj Mahal jumps on the mic, in this ode to “strong women”.
But “Woza” is straight up kwela, the kind of song that takes you back to imaginings of shebeens in the Drum decade. “Re Yo Tshela Kae” blends African folk guitar harmonies with an mbaqanga background whereas “Mokalanyane” brings us back to the maskandi, with deep, gravel voiced s’cathamiya choruses and an accordion. My stand out track is “UMalume” with it’s deep bass riff, Ian Herman driving those drums like a train stretching from Memphis to Umlazi, and Vusi rocking the sublime guitar harmonies. Such sublime groove and rhythm, this could well be my summer song for what’s left of 2010. It conjures the smell of meat cooking on a wood fire, the pop and crackle of ice cold beer drunk from quarts and just a hint of sadness, realism, the road still to walk, the mountain to climb. But not today.
“Nakupenda Afrika” featuring Angelique Kidjo introduces rhythms from far beyond the Limpopo, almost Samba, that West African booty shake rhythm. Towards the end of the album Vusi takes it to a more contemplative space, “Naka Mokhura” is a beautifully moody almost Afro Jazz inspired number, shades of Masekela and Molombo but with a stricter adherence to melody. Finally he closes with a song dedicated to the legacy of “Ntate Mandela” thanking the old man, wishing him well. It’s goosebump stuff in an ouevre that’s so cliched. Familiar ground for the old activist who still lives in Mamelodi.
“Let all those who share in Mandela’s greatest wish – to one day see an Africa that is at peace with herself – Say Africa”
Let’s return now to the flood of musicians (from predominantly privileged backgrounds – I must add) pursuing a cultural global standard dictated by the internet and their television screens – and in so doing moving us further down the path of collective cultural amnesia, dislocation and alienation from our history, our future and this social moment. Please look below at Vusi talking us through the folk song “Thula Mama” at TED. And ask yourself if any of the big South African pop music acts; from Locnville to the Parlotones, from Prime Circle, Taxi Violence, Louise Carver, Jozi, Die Heuwels Fantasties, aKing, Teargas and many, many others, will ever get invited to speak at TED based on the originality and relevance of their cultural production.