South African folk artist Vusi Mahlasela recently joined up with ATO Records to release an eleven-song album, recorded live at the Lyric Theatre in Johannesburg, and titled “Sing to the People.” Among other things, this album celebrates the twenty years since the release of Vusi’s debut album, “When You Come Back,” the title track of which quickly became a very important song, an anthem of sorts, in his native South Africa, and which he says is a “call to humanity.”
Also referred to simply as "The Voice," Vusi Mahlasela is decidedly more than just a folk singer, but a far-reaching troubadour, a talented poet, and an activist for a better Africa. His sound is as vast and beautiful as the wild continent from which he hails, just as it is comprised of the hardship and lamentation, and the strength and hope and triumphs of its extraordinary history. In addition, it is a sound that absolutely overflows with the spirit of the African people, certainly a most colorful culture. And while world music is admittedly not a musical niche about which I am very knowledgeable, there are artists I come across here and there who really have an impact on me, and Vusi Mahlasela is just such an artist.
One of the most profound lines from his songs, and one that I cannot agree with more, is that we “give something to the world and not just take from it.” Indeed, such lyrics show how Vusi earned his nickname, "The Voice." And, believe me when I say, his songs have plenty more thought-provoking and soulful lines to share. But it’s not only the lyrics that beg access to the listener’s very center and take up residence there, it is the fashion in which they are delivered, with Vusi’s South African accent and powerful singing voice. His guitar playing is also especially spectacular, complete with fluid picking and clear strumming. And he is backed by a tremendously skillful band, the members of which provide some truly effective instrumentation, such as drums, bass, electric guitar, keys, horns, and backup vocals.
While all of the songs on “Sing to the People” are worthwhile, there are a few I find particularly outstanding. Among them are River Jordan, Say Africa, and Our Sand. Best of all, however, is the two-song combo When You Come Back/Nakupenda Africa, which starts off a cappella, poetic and intensely delivered, and goes on to become a very involved piece, calling for Africa to sing, “Africa sing!”
At the end of the album, immediately following the closing song Tswang Tswang Tswang, all those in attendance at the Lyric Theatre applaud wildly and in unison call for more. That is the effect Vusi Mahasela has on his people. In fact, in the past twenty years or so, he has become to Africa what Bob Marley was to Jamaica, and what other greats are to their homelands. To be sure, Vusi is the sort of artist whose music one cannot help but appreciate, at least on some level, and whose character one cannot help but admire deeply.
For the next few weeks, Vusi will be touring the US with The Carolina Chocolate Drops, performing at key venues beginning in California and ending in Illinois. Sadly, the tour will not be bringing him to Philadelphia or its surrounding areas. But if you're inclined to travel to a great show, by all means make the trip to one of them. Click here for the full and updated tour schedule.