It’s tempting to compare the shebeens of apartheid-era South Africa to speakeasies elsewhere. Legal now, shebeens offered specific freedoms in a time of horrific oppression, both in terms of libation — Black South Africans were not allowed to drink at white pubs — and culture. A shebeen allowed for the perpetuation of indigenous music and dance styles, as well as umqombothi, a homebrew traditionally made by Zulu and Xhosa women. Many an activist of the era met in these spaces to organize and embrace their heritage, and many a shebeen queen — the women in charge of such facilities — made it possible.
Activist and musician Vusi Mahlasela was raised by one of these women: his grandmother Ida, outside whose home he recorded Shebeen Queen, a new live album packed made up of local songs from his township of origin, where he still lives today. Lively and loving, it has a warmth to it that tempers its energy with softness, a grateful celebration of family and home.
Mahlasela’s acoustic guitar is the primary source of this, vital and fresh, soothing even amid this high-energy block party. His delicate strings help weave together brass, voices, and heavy, electric bass with a light touch and intricate detail, whether melancholy or joyful. “Zimbabwe” is a commemoration of struggle, while the dulcet tones of “Silang Mabele” feature some of the album’s most transcendent vocal harmonies.
This will, of course, appeal to fans of the South African pop music styles Mahlasela learned from and thus here emulates, to those familiar with superstars like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, and even more so to followers of artists closely tied to the Soweto scene, like Mahlathini, the Mahotella Queens, and Yvonne Chaka Chaka. The sunny folk sounds and hints of light jazz give it an even broader reach. It’s easy to understand how his positive vibes made him such a good fit for backing vocals on the Dave Matthews Band hit “Everyday” back in 2001, no matter what your stance is on the said band and said single.
Often there is an ease to the listening here. Accessibility is, after all, key to music meant to unify a hurting people, as many of these songs have been in the past. There is also immense skill at hand, and high-energy “Draaikies” shows it more experimentally. An opening of strings and scattered percussion rises and falls, a tense introduction that climaxes in a quick ascent and then falls apart into a cascade of strings. The main body of the song is wordless jazz jamming. The piece draws to a close with a jangling percussion solo that leads to a final, tropical line on electric strings. It’s a particularly complex part of the album. Its place is nestled deep between more straightforward crowd-pleasers making it particularly refreshing.
Shebeen Queen is Vusi Mahlasela’s ode to the people, places, and sounds that most heavily shaped him. He is an ecstatic and thoughtful performer, a charismatic leader to an audience ready to have an unencumbered good time, and the live context captures these qualities robustly. Sonically, this does make for an easy listen — but for a good reason. Shebeen Queen is Vusi Mahlasela playing music by the people, for the people, and the significance of his music to himself, his family, and his neighbors is what matters most.