For the past several years, the headlines out of Mali and South Africa have been, to put it bluntly, disheartening. In Mali’s north, extremists associated with al-Qaeda have tried imposing a harsh version of their beliefs, which includes a ban on all music. In November, terrorists killed 20 people in a brazen attack on Mali’s capital. In South Africa, meanwhile, violence has surged against African immigrants as the country’s economy continues to unravel and unemployment continues to hover over 20 percent. What can a musician from Mali or South Africa possibly do to counteract the struggles in their homelands?
For Habib Koite and Vusi Mahlasela, the answer is simple: Play on. Koite and Mahlasela encourage people -- through passionate vocals and guitar-playing -- to see Mali and South Africa not as typical African trouble spots but as places in transition like the rest of the world. As places, in other words, that anyone can relate to. Koite and Mahlasela make the complexities of their countries universal, also singing about subjects that go far beyond the borders of West and South Africa.
When Koite and Mahlasela perform together in San Francisco on Saturday, March 19 -- kicking off their “Acoustic Africa” tour of the United States that also sees them play in Rohnert Park on March 20 and in Santa Cruz on March 28 -- the two will play the role of musical ambassadors.
For Mahlasela, Nelson Mandela’s death in 2013 only heightened the ways that Mahlasela’s music acts as a kind of unifying force for those who listen. Mahlasela says that one of his most famous songs, “When You Come Back” -- written during South Africa’s apartheid years, when Mandela was jailed and a swath of the country’s black leadership lived in exile –- is still relevant today. The tune’s allusions are more metaphorical now.
“When I sing, ‘Africa, when you come back,’ it means we think that when an African child is hungry for education, or when we talk about economic freedom, that Africa will be able to come back to us,” Mahlasela says in a phone interview from South Africa, before flying to the United States.
“When You Come Back” -- which includes the lines, "Sing loud, sing to the people. Let them give something to the world and not just take from it. And we'll ring the bells when you come back" -- also references the humanity that people everywhere, including South Africans, can lose sight of. Like the American anthem “We Shall Overcome,” which anchored America’s civil rights protests in the 1960s and has retained its ability to move and inspire people, “When You Come Back," especially as it’s sung by Mahlasela, resonates with emotion and an overarching feeling of hope.
It’s also a reminder of how far South Africa has come in a single generation. The country’s apartheid laws were repealed 25 years ago. In those apartheid years, Mahlasela was a protest singer who spent time in jail because of his actions. At a very early age, Mahlasela joined the African National Congress, the century-old liberal political party whose membership also included Mandela at an early age. (Mahlasela performed at Nelson Mandela's 1994 presidential inauguration.)
“The issue of Africa, and getting African people to know their history, is very important,” Mahlasela says. “There is more responsibility to continue bringing about the human face, in terms for all of us to be aware of, and to try not to forget about the pains that we suffered. And to reach out and have forgiveness -- that’s the only way we can say to anyone, ‘OK, we open our hands and then let’s move forward.’”
Reconciliation is also a high priority in Mali, where Koite has been a major presence for almost two decades. While Mahlasela can be thought of as a popular folk singer, Koite straddles the lines between folk and tradition and modern and popular. He’s an amalgamator of Mali’s many musical styles, hailing from a griot family that goes back many generations and, by birth, was charged with telling musical stories around the region. Koite, who, like Mahlasela, is in his 50s, was the first one in his family to play songs outside of Africa. His concerts, like Mahlasela’s, are full of longtime fans who know everything (from chord changes to lyrics) emanating from the stage.
When performing together, Koite and Mahlasela's styles are entirely complementary. Both musicians address current issues with their songs, but they also know their audiences are looking for more than politics. Their music is joyous rather than demagogic, thoughtful rather than maudlin. Neither musician is really looking for nirvana in their lyrics. As with “When You Come Back,” they acknowledge life’s cruelties without being dragged down themselves.
Says Mahlasela: “We have to embrace humanity in all spheres.”