Bringing a message of change - from Africa

Visi Mahlasela
South African musician Vusi Mahlasela made his first guitar was a child, using on old tin and fishing line. Now he is an internationally reknowned guitarist, percussionist, and poet.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Sitting in a rehearsal studio in North Minneapolis, Vusi Mahlasela picks up a guitar and begins to pick out a tune.

He's a big shouldered man, with large fingers which dance daintily across the frets.

Vusi Mahlasela
Mahlasela and his band have been rehearsing in Minneapolis prior to launching a multi-city tour with a concert at the Ordway in St Paul.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"I built my first guitar at the age of seven, using a container which used to contain cooking oil and for strings I'll use fishing nets," he says.

Mahlasela says it was just a toy, and he never dreamed where it would take him.

"I grew up being a happy kid," he says. "I just didn't know that there was any imbalances or injustices until 1976, June 16th, the Soweto uprising of that time. I know of what was happening and I started asking questions. That's when my political education started."

Vusi Mahlasela began writing poetry, protesting the injustices black South Africans suffered under Apartheid.

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He appeared at meetings and funerals for fallen comrades. It was all very exhilarating he says, until he and his friends were arrested.

"Yeah, the politics were very interesting but deadly as well. So people disappeared. I had friends who were killed or disappeared. But we learned to forgive that, you know?"

"Yeah, the politics were very interesting but deadly as well," he says. "So people disappeared. I had friends who were killed or disappeared. But we learned to forgive that, you know?"

In time, taking his lead from a Chilean poet he had read, Mahlasela began combining his poems with his guitar playing because it was an effective way of spreading the message

"The music gets across quickly and gets to the people fast," he says.

But Mahlasela's distinctive voice and playing also helped.

The end of white rule meant big changes and big challenges in South Africa. Locally made music which had once been banned for radio play by the authorities was suddenly much in demand. Vusi Mahlasela kept singing, playing and organizing.

"When I grew up, when I went to school, I wanted to be a priest or a doctor," he says. "But somebody told me you are that, because with your music you are healing and you are teaching."

Mahlasela is now the ambassador for an organization called 46664. It was Nelson Mandela's inmate number during the decades he was in prison. Now it's being put to a positive use, as a way to work against the spread of HIV and AIDS in South Africa.

It's part of a message of change and renewal Vusi Mahlasela will bring on his U.S. tour.

"I think we are witnessing the evil that was there, will not last," he says.

He says he's not just talking about South Africa, he also senses a change going on in the world. He's excited about the new U.S. president, but he says the financial crisis brings new challenges which involves everyone.

"I think everybody now has to be responsible, to watch and pinch those who are not delivering," he says.

Mahlasela brings with him his new album "Guiding Star." The disk features some of his friends, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Dave Matthews, and a host of other leading African musicians.

Vusi Mahlasela knows 16 languages. He sings in six of them including Xhosa, the clicking language.

"There is a saying in Sutu, which means 'a person is a language,'" he says. "So if learn to speak other people's language, you learn more more to understand them, to know more their culture, and to love them."

And in coming weeks beginning Saturday in St Paul Vusi Mahlasela clearly hopes to do a little teaching.