South African singer-songwriter/activist Vusi Mahlasela may be a new name to those of us in America but, globally, he has made quite a name for himself. Several notable highlights include his 1994 performance at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, the founding of his own Music Development Foundation which preserves African music, and his signing onto fellow South African, Dave Matthews’s ATO Records label in the early 2000’s.
He released his seventh studio album very early this year, titled Say Africa. It is a laid-back collection of politically inspired folk songs, many sung in Mahlasela’s native language. It was recorded alongside Taj Mahal, who provides guest vocals on a track. Say Africa is an ode to his home country –- additionally, it fulfills the role Mahlasela has adopted as “The Voice” of South Africa, his pragmatic working nickname.
Vusi took the stage at the Bumbershoot Music Lounge donning nothing more than black slacks, a black tee-shirt, and an acoustic guitar. Despite his humble and unassuming appearance, his performance was as powerful and affecting as they come, and rightfully garnered the first standing ovation of the 2011 Bumbershoot Music Lounge. Though he belted several goosebump-inducing wails, he used his voice like another instrument, mimicking birds chirping, whistling and humming frequently, rolling Rs, and generally using his pipes for all that they would allow. Though his music, especially new album’s title track “Say Africa,” which should be the new continental anthem, are amazing, Mahlasela is far more than just a musician. As an ambassador to South Africa and close friend of Nelson Mandela, Mahlasela was very talkative between songs, delivering brief sermons on forgiveness, togetherness, what it means to be an African, and what it means to be a human being. It was an enlightening performance all the way around, and left the entire Lounge in a reverential state of awe for the South African.