The epochal South African protest singer and songwriter Vusi Mahlasela played an engaging show before a docile but erudite audience in the sprawling Walt Whitman Theatre at Brooklyn College—a tiny collegiate oasis deep in Brooklyn. The diverse but reserved crowd almost came across as too reverent, passive towards the poet and musician. Only by the end of Mahlasela’s set did they finally muster the courage to indulge in his group’s propulsive polyrhythm and guitars.
Mahlasela will forever be associated with the soundtrack of the anti-apartheid movement. But he is still decidedly a protest singer. (Broadly, that is considered “African folk” music). His defiant, peaceful, and artistic resistance to injustice makes it impossible for him to ignore continuing calamities. However, given the serious subtext of his songwriting and singing his music is not cloaked by the surrounding darkness he endured in the past. Rather the prevailing harmonies of life—love and family—are at the center of his message.
“Everytime”—a track featuring Jem on his 2007 release Guiding Star—was a beautiful flowing song about a devoted lover. Lucid African imagery articulated Mahlasela’s universal sentiments: “Your beauty burns the grass like fire.”
Musically, he and his four-piece band played a brilliant mixture of global sounds, perfectly balancing blues and soul with traditional South African rhythms, melodies and language. “Thula Mama” dedicated to his grandma for thwarting the police when trying to arrest Mahlasela as a young activist—blended scat singing and vocables into a smooth homage to mothers. During the bridge Mahlasela traded a cappella verses as the band perfectly transitioned in-between. Finally the song drifted away in a jubilant, but faint, sing-along: “My song of love / My song of life”.
Purpose is never far from Mahlasela’s mind. It is his guiding principle in life and music, and so everything he does must resonate with a positive and humane message. He took a moment to speak out about the marginalization and forced relocation of Botswana’s indigenous San people, or Bushmen. Remarkably, he never sounded preachy or forceful or hippy-dippy. Instead it was an earnest reproach of an unjust policy, never undermined by segueing into a song introduction. Rather he emphasized his point with a poignant ethical and rhetorical question: Where are they to go?
Mahlasela was not all serious, though. While tuning his guitar he joked, “this is a Chinese song called Too Ning… it’s over now.”
Ending the show with Miriam Makeba’s iconic “Pata Pata” was a well-received homage, Mahlasela spinning, twisting, and shuffling to the song’s rhapsodic refrain.