Vusi Mahlasela brings joyful activism to Meany Hall

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Wednesday March 03, 2010

Source: City Arts Magazine
By: Virginia W

Stepping out onto the Meany stage this past Saturday evening, South African Vusi Mahlasela offered a simple greeting to the audience: “This is My Prayer For Humanity,” and launched into his first song of the night. Right away I was struck by the clean, effective manner he used to set the tone for the evening.

Of course, fluffy or light-hearted music is hardly to be expected from this venerable veteran of the political struggles of South Africa during Apartheid. But it was important to bring the audience immediately into the right space with him, and for the audience to know that he is an artist writing and singing about matters of import.

Mahlasela’s typical gigs involve high profile benefit concerts on stage with famous rock stars. But his concert at Meany was a stripped down, spare and focused performance, consisting initially of just Mahlasela and his guitar. After the first couple of solo songs, his compatriot singer/guitarist Mongezi Ntaka joined in.

Mahlasela’s choice of repertoire ranged from straightforward songs about long distance love to a song about freedom with lyrics that had been scribbled on toilet paper with a smuggled in pen by a dissident in a prison in South Africa. Another song concerned the forced relocation of the San Bushmen by the government of Botswana, and their eventual return to their ancestral lands. A somewhat shorter, but very moving song was about his friend and fellow activist Thandi, who was handed a gun in prison by the men with the keys who suggested she kill herself and who chose not to use it in response to the movement inside her six-month pregnant belly. One of the more powerful songs near the end of the concert started out with the familiar rousing melody of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (“God Bless Africa”), a song that carried the voice of the oppressed during the era of Apartheid, and now remains in the public ear as the national anthem of the country.

But in spite of the palpable weight of history and struggle evoked in the room, the concert had a jubilant lightness to it. Mahlasela’s voice is simply beautiful to listen to, and he nearly danced off the stage after setting the audience to singing the chorus of the final song. South African music is in large part driven by vocal strength, and Mahlasela is often called “the Voice.” But the simple instrumentation of the two guitars served as perfect accompaniment to the men’s voices, playing musical material that was quite interesting in its own right.

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