With his modest on-stage patter between songs, his initial self-conscious African jig (although by the end of the concert he was a veritable Mr Bojangles!) and an absolute lack of an ego befitting his star status, Mahlasela put the music front and centre at what was quite possibly the concert of the year for fans of African folk music.
Wearing his political heart on his sleeve from the outset, Mahlasela dedicated this once-off concert at the Spier Amphitheatre to Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian poet and political activist who was murdered in captivity by the Nigerian security forces. Rooted in the protest poetry of the mid-eighties much of Mahlasela's music deals with political turmoil, although the issues he deals with are universal.
One of the first songs of the concert, and one of my personal favourites, was the up-tempo 'Ubuhle Bomhlaba', an acoustic duet with guitarist Moses Mafiri. With Vusi's cheerful rounded face alternating between a smile and a grimace as his voice rose from a low growl to soaring highs it seemed as if the music was welling up uncontrollably from deep inside him, determined to find a release. Sung in Zulu the song speaks of police brutality during the apartheid regime, but as with all of Mahlasela's music it also offers a positive note for the future as he sings of reconciliation and the beauty of South Africa. Both Mahlasela and Mafiri are accomplished guitarists and their subtle harmonies and interplay were a mark of their many years of playing together as they wove a spell of pure magic over the audience.
Displaying a mischievous sense of humour throughout the concert, Mahlasela had the crowd in the palm of his hand. Quipping "end of song" after briefly re-tuning his guitar, he had the capacity audience in gales of laughter while he made light of persistent sound problems by joking: "This sort of technology shouldn?t be allowed in the Third World!"
Jokes aside, the technical problems throughout the concert marred an otherwise faultless performance with the band often put off their stride as their on-stage monitors constantly needing to be adjusted. Even worse was to come though as flautist Kelly Petlane?s microphone was out of order for most of his time on stage, at one point forcing him to gently shift backing vocalist Moyahabo "Queen" Ranyama out of the way so that he could use her mic for his pennywhistle solo. Even Vusi himself couldn?t escape the gremlins with his microphone giving up the ghost and leaving the audience to frantically lip-read for the last bars of 'Untitled', a song about the pain of separation written by poet Raks Seakhoa.
About halfway through the concert my thoughts turned to the relevance of the music that we were hearing. These iconic songs without doubt played their part in bringing an unjust system to its knees, but what role did they have to play in the current South Africa? Surely the time for political freedom songs was past and if artists wanted to politicise their music it was time to sing of HIV, corruption and terrorism? Yet, as anyone listening to Mahlasela sing will quickly realise, it is the sheer universality of his music that accounts for much of its power.
One of the most inspirational songs to come out of South Africa in recent years, 'When You Come Back' is possibly the most pertinent example of this. It was written about the tentative return of political exiles to the country in the early '90s and although its original audience may have changed, at a time when large numbers of skilled expatriates are both leaving and considering returning to South Africa it is a theme that resonates as loudly today as it did when first released in 1992.
Vusi first came to prominence in the mid-eighties as a political poet and typical of many of Vusi?s songs it is in a style that he refers to as "muso-poetry", combining spoken word with delicate guitar harmonies. It sounded as if he was singing to all of those South Africans living abroad: "We?ll be ringing the bells when you come back, we?ll be beating the drums when you back?"
With many of his lyrics in African languages, he preceded most of the songs with a brief comment about what inspired the song and what it meant to him. From the forced removals endured by his grandfather to the conciliatory scene of Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk receiving the Nobel peace prize together (?Two Birds?), he reminded us all of past injustice, but at the same time persuaded us not to dwell on the past but to look to the future with hope.
Ably assisted on stage by his Proud People?s Band, the highlight of the night for many, particularly the large number of foreigners in the audience, was Mahlasela's version of the classic protest song, 'Weeping'. Originally written by Tom Fox of the band Bright Blue, Vusi?s voice was perfectly suited to bring the delicate, questioning lyrics to life. With beautiful three-way vocal harmonies between Mahlasela, "Queen" Ranyama and Moses Mafiri I?m fairly sure it wasn?t the cool night air that sent shivers down the back of my neck. Followed by Miriam Makeba's smash hit 'Patta Patta' the crowd was on their feet and dancing like there was no tomorrow.
And then all too soon, after nearly three hours on stage, it was over.
As Nadine Gordimer has famously said of Vusi, he "sings as a bird does: in total response to being alive. He is a national treasure." Judging by the response of the thousand-strong crowd at the Spier Amphitheatre even that isn't compliment enough. With his increasing popularity in America, thanks partly to ex-South African Dave Matthews, who recently signed Vusi in the States to his ATO record label, we?ll be seeing less and less of this troubadour in the months to come.
The more I soaked up the music during the concert, the more I become convinced that Vusi is the voice of this "new" South Africa. His recognition of the past combined with an unbending positive outlook for the future, his songs of hope, beauty and joy should be required listening for all South Africans.