1001 South African Songs You Must Hear Before You Go Deaf

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Archive for the tag “Vusi Mahlasela”

A Prayer For Our Time – Vusi Mahlasela

Miyela Afrika

Miyela Afrika

People talk about the power of prayer. Singers sing about prayer. Madonna has been like one, Bon Jovi have been living on one, Duran Duran saved one and Aretha Franklin said a little one. Prayer can be to ask for something or to be thankful. Sometimes we prayer for others and their wellbeing. Usually it is a reflective time when one looks at one’s life, one’s hopes and needs and one’s blessings.

In Vusi Mahlasela’s hands, prayer becomes a beautiful thing as he celebrates the ‘new dawning’ of South Africa post apartheid. A time where ‘we will drink with joy/with no fear of evil amongst us’. There is an uplifting feel to this. But he doesn’t just leave it there. There is a challenge in his prayer as the words go on ‘And we will lead our children into the path of positive direction/where we will clothe them with respect, love, freedom and strength/where life can be blessed accordingly and be trustworthy.

‘A Prayer For Our Time’ mixes beautiful words with Vusi’s amazingly beautiful voice alongside some gentle guitars that give one a real sense of being at one with God (if that is your belief) or just a sense of communion with the world. Yes, this fits perfectly with that ‘golden time’ when apartheid was falling and we were emerging into the New South Africa, the rainbow nation. But these words are timeless. We are always in need of a better world, always in need of a time when people live with respect, love and freedom.

So, you can be like one, live on one, save one, say a little one, but you can also just sit back, put on Vusi’s song and listen to one and maybe life won’t be quite so bad for a short while.

I should probably follow this up with Peanut Butter Conspiracy’s ‘Amen’, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Where to find it:
Miyela Afrika – Vusi Mahlasela (2000), Colossal, CDCLL7040

Video:

The Crossing – Johnny Clegg

The Crossing – Johnny Clegg

The Crossing – Johnny Clegg

Written for Dudu Ndlovu, one of Clegg’s dancers who was killed during the violence of the early 90’s, ‘The Crossing’ is a moving song and one of the standout tracks on ‘Heat, Dust & Dreams’ his album from 1993. On the face of it the song could be about crossing over from the land of the living to be with the ancestors, but, given the time this song was released, it was also a metaphor for the crossing the country was making from apartheid to democracy.

This is argueably one of Clegg’s most polished songs and possibly one of his best vocal tracks. That’s not to diss the rough folkiness of his other stuff, that’s what gave it it’s charm. But the sombre subject of this song demanded this be a polished affair. The more subdued verses talk of loss and violence but they are offset with the rousing chorus of ‘O Siyeza, o siyeza, sizofika webaba noma’ (We are coming, we are coming, we will arrive soon). The heartfelt delivery is the kind of stuff that can bring a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye.

Roll on 15 years after Johnny recorded the song and in 2018, about a year before his death, a group of leading South African musicians recorded a moving version of the song in honour of Johnny. This conglomeration included among others Johnny’s son Jesse, Karen Zoid, Vusi Mahlasela, David Kramer, Kahn Morbee from the Parlotones, Patricia Lewis, Zolani Mahola from Freshlyground, Arno Carstens and a special guest appearance of Peter Gabriel. It is not only the power of the song that reflects Clegg’s genius, but the mix of people from all colours of the South African rainbow working together that makes this a fitting tribute to him. It honours his music and his values.

But perhaps it is the line ‘Oh, it’s funny how those once so close and now gone can still so affect our lives’ that really gets one when listening to this. Johnny has now made his crossing, but his music and legacy lives on in his music. We will be listening to ‘Scatterlings’, ‘Impi’, ‘Asimbonanga’ and many others for a long time to come. I think that ‘The Crossing’ will also be one that people turn to when remembering Johnny and as one comment on the page for the Friends of Johnny Clegg version says ‘If you watched this and didn’t get tearful are you even South African?’

Where to find it:
Heat, Dust & Dreams – Johnny Clegg (1993), EMI,  CDEMCJ(WF)5499

Video:
Johnny Clegg:

Friends of Johnny Clegg version:

Maid In Africa – Electric Petals

Polynation - Electric Petals

Polynation – Electric Petals

This is the second song from the solitary Electric Petals album, ‘Polynation’, to appear on this list. The punny title is a trademark of Danny de Wet, who was in early eVoid and went on to be one of the driving forces behind Wonderboom, and he also supplies the bittersweet lyrics.

The song is essentially a conversation between a white western tourist and a black South African ‘maid’. The tourist arrives in the country and buys up all the souvenirs on offer, even wanting to have the beautiful sky. But the ‘maid’ answers that, even if you were born and bred here, the sky is not ours to give. The the plight of the black people is raised and the tourist asks what can she do? But again the answer is that she can’t know that, even if she had been born and bred in Africa. The song then goes on to say that despite being down trodden, they still ‘shine through the ugliness’.

This bittersweet contrast between the ugliness of apartheid and the way that people can still ‘shine through’ brings a poingnancy to this song which subtly weaves a thin thread of township guitar into the predominantly western sounding song. This effect is further enhanced when the song moves into the ‘shines through’ section and a then, not very well known, Vusi Mahlasela delivers what the sleeve notes to the CD describe as a ‘one in a million vocal’ which underscores the ability to shine.

The album and the song were largely ignored by the general public at the time and that probably had more to do with the uncomfortable politics in the lyrics than the music itself as it is packed with great tunes with ‘Maid In africa’ being one of the standout ones.

Where to find it:
Polynation – The Electric Petals (1995), Teal Records, MMTCD-1906

In Solitary Confinement – Vusi Mahlasela

When You Come Back – Vusi Mahlasela

When You Come Back – Vusi Mahlasela

For all it being called ‘In Solitary Confinement’, this is a surprisingly upbeat song which starts with some spritely guitar playing and uplifting penny whistle before Vusi’s beautiful vocals kick in. This juxtaposition of the serious nature of the lyrics and a happy tune is not uncommon in music with The Smiths’ ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’ being one that I always cite (and did so in the review of Henry Ate’s ‘Hey Mister’).

In ‘In Solitary Confinement’ Vusi was singing from personal experience having been incarcerated and put in solitary himself. If my memory serves me correctly from when I was lucky enough to see Vusi perfom live, this song was written on toilet paper while he was in prison. It is a joyous romp of a song with the pennywhistle flitting around Vusi’s tight guitar work while his voice does its magic with the lyrics, caressing the pain of the words with its beauty until the desired effect of those wanting to inflict the pain is beaten into submission.

South Africa must be one of the few places in the world where the protest songs could sound joyful and beautiful but at the same time have biting, critical words and ‘In Solitary Confinement’ is a shining example of this. So lock youself up in your room and let Vusi’s magic set you free.

Where to find it:
When You Come Back – Vusi Mahlasela (1998) Shifty/BMG,CDSHIFT50

Video:

Sleep Tight Margaret – Vusi Mahlasela

Silang Mabele - Visu Mahlasela

Silang Mabele – Visu Mahlasela

Vusi Mahlasela has a beautiful voice. Well, that’s a bit like saying water is wet because, just as anyone who has felt water would tell you that it is wet, anyone who has heard Vusi would tell you he has a beautiful voice. So what happens when a beautiful voice collides with a beautiful song? To start with the word ‘collides’ takes on a velvet smooth kind of merger or combining rather than its usual harsh clashing together of objects. And with ‘Sleep Tight Margaret’ we have this coming together of the voice and the song.

‘Sleep Well Margaret’ is a lullaby that sits like a comfort blanket on your soundsystem with gently plucked guitars, hushed drumming and a muted bass which slide by you in a dreamy state, Vusi’s tender vocals caressing your ears, taking you on a aural trip into dreamland.

But, as with a lot of Vusi’s material, there is more to the song than beautiful voice meeting beautiful song. The lyrics reveal a pain in the Margaret that Vusi is singing to as he sings, ‘Carry you to a new day/New day, new life/Releasing the misfortunes/That carried us through yesterday’. There is a deep care for this ‘Magaret’ and Vusi is trying to help her through this pain, singing her to sleep, and bringing her peace so that she can face the ‘new day’ with optimism. I vaguely recall hearing somewhere that the Margaret in question was Margaret Singana, but I can’t say this with certainty.

A song is often the best envelope in which to deliver a message of hope and no more so in this bittersweet, soul-filled offering from Vusi.

Where to find it:
Silang Mabele – Vusi Mahlasela (1997)

Video:

A Proud People – Vusi Mahlasela

Miyela Afrika - Vusi Mahlsela

Miyela Afrika – Vusi Mahlsela

Vusi Mahlasela is known as The Voice, so it is a bit strange to hear an instrumental piece from him, but this is what we find in ‘A Proud People’ and it is a reminder that he is more than voice. Perhaps it is because his voice is so beautiful that we sometimes forget that there are instruments playing on his songs.

Like many black South Africans, Vusi started out playing on a guitar made from fishing line and an old oil can, but as he grew up, his voice took centre stage and his playing faded into the background. On ‘A Proud People’ we get a chance to focus on this other side of The Voice and we find that he has another ‘voice’ which is just as gentle and beautiful. This jazzy, laid back guitar piece is as good for the soul as listening to Vusi singing a capella. Okay maybe not quite as goosebump inducing, but certainly as relaxing.

Frontmen always take the limelight in any band, sometimes to the point of totally obscuring the engine room of sound makers behind them. Here we get a good opportunity to see the musician in Vusi step up and take front stage for a moment, while the voice takes a little break.

Where to find it:
Miyela Afrika – Vusi Mahlasela (2000), Colossal, CDCLL7040

Video:

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