At a very early age, South African-born singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela seemingly stumbled upon his own unique musical calling. As a child, almost as if by accident, Mahlasela began beating against pots and pans, as if in search of some semblance of rhythm.
“I played with objects as toys when I was young,” he said. “I just started experimenting with different noises and various styles until I found something.”
An early enthusiasm for music would indeed carry Mahlasela into his adolescence, during which he taught himself how to play his own hand-made guitar, crafted out of tin cans and fishing lines. Since those days, Mahlasela has continued to hone a musical style, which has presently earned him a reputation as one of the most renowned artists of his country.
This Sunday, Mahlasela is just one of three artists, including Habib Koit? and Dobet Gnahor?, to perform at GW’s Lisner Auditorium as part of the concert tour “Acoustic Africa,” presented by Putumayo World Music. The evening will showcase selections off the 2006 CD “Acoustic Africa,” which fuses sounds from over a dozen African singers and musicians hailing from nearly every stretch of the continent.
In the same spirit that inspired the creation of the CD, Mahlasela says the concert at Lisner will highlight many different stylistic components, all of which can be appreciated independently. The juxtaposition of the Mali-inspired melodies of Habib Koit? and the Ivory Coast-flavored rhythms of Dobet Gnahor? combine with Mahlasela’s work to create what he describes as “the perfect triangle of sounds, which will make people explore several different kinds of African music,” he said. “The influences are all over, but they all draw back to Africa and the acoustic tradition.”
While Mahlasela’s music may draw heavily on traditional acoustic guitar melodies, he also combines variations of jazz and soul harmonies. These sounds are then strung together by Mahlasela’s high-energy vocals which often offer meditations on social issues affecting South Africa, including the country’s struggle against apartheid. “It is important for my people to know where we come from,” he said. “I try to write music that informs people about where were are today in South Africa.”
Koit? and Gnahore’s music also structure diverse traditional African music around contemporary themes. According to Mahlasela “our music encompasses all spectrums of life – love, hope, angst and reconciliation. It is important for all of us to tie in global issues as well.” Mahlasela said part of achieving global appeal for acoustic African music has involved sharing work that has a broad social appeal for audiences and that does not limit itself to a particular set of musical influences.
“We want our music to be accessible to everyone; it’s not devoted to a particular audience or age,” he said. In this respect, he believes that Acoustic Africa can be a sort of all-inclusive learning experience for all those who attend.
Mahlasela promises that the performance this Sunday will be extremely high in energy. “It will start off slow and then gradually build momentum” he said. He hopes the event will be as much of a “learnin experience” for audiences as he said the concert tour has been for him in his collaborations with Koit? and Gnahor?.
Acoustic Africa with Vusi Mahlasela, Habib Koit?, and Dobet Gnahor? performs at GW’s Lisner Auditorium Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25-35. GW Students: $15.