We have all often heard how much love Mzansi performing artists receive when entertaining abroad, but having the opportunity to witness that outpouring of love for one of our own in a foreign land is an experience that warms the heart like no other.
On Tuesday night my fiancé Leith and I went to a New York City club, S.O.B.’s (Sounds of Brazil) to watch Vusi Mahlasela’s live performance.
I was giddy with excitement. I am a passionate music lover, especially live music, and have always been a fan of Mahlasela’s work. Plus, I hoped he would play songs from his latest album Say Africa, which I had not had the opportunity to listen to properly as it was released after I had already relocated to the US.
More than that though, I was going to introduce Leith, who, in case you didn’t already know, is American, to African folk music. Having served in the US Navy, Leith is well-travelled and is therefore more open-minded, knowledgeable and appreciative of different cultures than the regular American. But music is a strange beast, you either like it or you don’t. I hoped he would like Mahlasela.
When we arrived at the venue, which has a standing capacity of 450 and a seating capacity of 160, it was already packed and by the time Mahlasela walked on stage, it was standing room only.
Scanning the audience, 90% white, I couldn’t help but wonder if these people even knew any of his music, but as soon as he stepped on that stage and strummed the first chords on his guitar, it was clear that these were not just random music lovers; they were his fans.
He did four shows in the US: Los Angeles, Maryland, New York and Philadelphia.
Mahlasela, who was joined on stage by Washington DC-based lead rhythm guitarist and backing vocalist Mongezi Ntaka, delivered a soulful two-hour set, more than 15 songs altogether. It may have been more, it may have been less songs, but I admit that I was so drunk with the euphoria of hearing songs sung live in my own language (rather than hearing them on my iPod or CDs), that I lost count.
He opened with Ubuhle Bomhlaba from his Wisdom Of Forgiveness album.
It is clear that Mahlasela is a seasoned musician who is no stranger to performing before audiences who do not understand the various languages he sings in – he takes the time to explain what every song means.
In the middle of his set, he invoked the spirit of the late Jabu Khanyile by singing Malowe. The smattering of South Africans in the audience sang along, ululated and clapped. We loved it when he did Thulasizwe and when, during the short interval, Ntaka started playing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, I felt my eyes well up. A truly proudly South African moment.
When he performed Weeping, which appears on the album The Voice, the applause was deafening. Clearly the most popular song of the night.
Before singing the title track of his new album, Say Africa, he explained the concept of Ubuntu — I am because you are. A friend on Twitter, @MarleneBoyce, had told me about this song when the album was released in SA last year and how it made her think of me. I have to say that it could’ve been written for me because no matter which corner of the globe my feet take me, everything in me will always Say Africa.
“I may be walking in New York/but the dust on my boots and the rhythm of my feet and my heartbeat Say Africa.”
Truly an outstanding performance by Mahlasela, as evidenced by the long meet & greet line to buy CDs and get them autographed by the man himself. His talent won everyone’s admiration, but his friendliness and general down-to-earth demeanor certainly won all of our hearts.
Perhaps the best way to sum up Vusi Mahlasela’s appeal would be to quote Leith, who said: “It’s so refreshing to hear real music, not something homogeneously put together in a studio with sounds electronically generated and sold to the highest bidder.
“This is just a man and his music, made with his voice and his hands and it has so many textures and layers.”