The Face To Face project, a rare recording of the magical encounter between Sotho folk singers and Swedish collective, is brought back to life by Strut Records. Out January 27th.
Witnessing the sweet vibrating sounds oozing out of his grandmother’s shebeen in their township of Mamelodi, Vusi Mahlasela built his very first guitar using fishing line and a cooking oil can. But witnessing the deadly Soweto Uprisings led by black students and teachers in 1976, the kid who would later become “The Voice” embarked on a revolutionary musical journey. Early on, young Vusi Sidney Mahlasela Ka Zwane joined the African National Congress and lent his powerful voice to the fight against the Apartheid regime. Inspired by the pen of radical songwriter Miriam Makeba and mentored by novelist Nadine Gordimer, he used his songs and poems as rallying cries for the anti-apartheid cause. Alas, Mahlasela’s engaged lyricism also brought on trouble in the form of police harassment. Extract from his debut album, the misleadingly joyous “In Solitary Confinement” recounts the singer’s struggle with systemic imprisonment.
In the 1990s, as Nelson Mandela was released and the racist segregation system slowly started to crumble, Mahlasela released his first album, the defining Sotho folk project When You Come Back. In May 1994, its eponymic title graced the Father of the Nation’s presidential inauguration ceremony. The same year, Mahlasela echoed his calls for peace, understanding and reconciliation on his second album Wisdom of Forgiveness, honoring Ubuntu philosophy on wonderfully rhythmic and powerful anthems. Still following Mandela’s path, Vusi Mahlasela’s journey led him to Sweden, a long-time supportive ally of the anti-apartheid movement, and a booming cultural center of Northern Europe.
The Nordic country became the scene of a magical encounter between the mzansi singer and Jive Connection, one of Sweden’s finest jazz and soul collectives of the time, led by Little Dragon drummer Erik Bodin. Remembering the experience, the instrumentalist recounts, “I first met Vusi in the beginning of the 90s during an exchange program between Swedish and South African musicians. He then stood up to me as a very inspiring and curious musician and that was the start of our creative musical relationship.” The unusual pairing of these different cultures worked ideally, and the newly formed international band went on to tour cities up north and throughout parts of Africa. As Bodin explains, Jive Connection’s authentic approach merged with Mahlasela’s majestic sound and deep wisdom, as well as singer-songwriter Norman Zulu’s vocals for a wonderful result. “It was such a fantastic voyage to work with Vusi and all the Swedish musicians. Vusi and Norman Zulu teaching the Swedish guys to do all their backing vocals in all these different South African languages. I remember I was so impressed by Vusi’s voice & vocal arrangements, he just put them down live and direct.” However, the only demos ever recorded of this unique blend remained mostly unheard of for broader audiences, the tapes gathering dust in producer Torsten Larrson’s archives.
Fortunately, the lost-gems dealers at Strut Records are reviving the decades-old recording. The joint album entitled Face To Face and set to release in late January, features 14 groovy tracks flowing from township traditional sounds to jazz and reggae. “Vusi’s music is clear and extraordinary, his voice is magnificent,” says Erik Bodin, “I think we added a little more roughness, attitude and groove to the music. In the hands of our monster producer Torsten Larsson the remixes from the old recordings came out with a magic blend. It’s really joyful music, full of love and hope and it’s music for all moods!” Aligned with Mahlasela’s usual writing, its lead single “Faceless People” tackles the issue of child abuse, as the upcoming project is Mahlasela’s latest contribution to the ongoing struggle for freedom on a rebellious soundtrack.
Face To Face, out January 27th via Strut Records.