Bushfire Festival lights up Swaziland

Vusi Mahlasela has a new nickname: Monsieur President de Champs-Élysées.

Well, at least according to Mali’s musical superstar, Habib Koite, who coined the nickname following Mahlasela’s insistence that he speak French with Koite, despite his lack of ability.

The two shared the stage, along with Côte d’Ivoire’s Dobet Gnahore, at the third annual Bushfire Festival in Swaziland last weekend and, without a doubt, stole the show.

Billed as Acoustic Africa, this collaboration between three of Africa’s most successful musicians was anything but an acoustic affair.

For an hour an a half they wowed the Bushfire crowd with a fusion of electric West African and Southern African rhythms, eventually bringing the roof down with an encore of Miriam Makeba’s Pata Pata.

After the torrential downpour that pelted the Bushfire Festival on Saturday night and most of Sunday, their early evening set was the perfect tonic to get the festival back on its feet.

The Mail & Guardian managed to sit down with Mahlasela, Koite and Gnahore as they ate a hurried lunch before their sound check to get the low-down on the Acoustic Africa collaboration.

While Mahlasela did most of the talking, due to the language barrier and the lack of a translator, it was quite clear that evening when the trio took to the stage that all three were having the time of their lives, singing each other’s songs on stage for adoring fans.

“Acoustic Africa is the story of the perfect triangle of three mountains on the continent that have never met—Habib, Vusi and Dobet,” he Mahlasela, pointing to his musical partners as they listened.

“We are from different countries on the continent, but there is quite a lot of common things that we share, musically and in our upbringing,” Mahlasela said. “There is a lot of choral music in Africa and we have songs for all occasions, like when a baby is born, when there is a wedding, when it is the first harvesting time, when there are the first rains, even when someone passes away, we have music.

“This project is about showcasing and highlighting the importance of traditional African music with the use of indigenous instruments. It is a very integral show; while there are spotlights for everyone, we also play together a lot.”

While the collaboration was initiated by the Putumayo record label in 2006, it has taken on a life of its own, wowing audiences around the world.

“We have been playing quite a lot together in Europe and America, I think on our last tour we did 41 shows in 47 days,” said Mahlasela.
“I always knew of Habib’s music but we had never met, and the first time I saw him was at the Africa Festival in Germany. I thought, wow, I just loved his music.”

While Koite and Mahlasela may be the more well-known of the trio, it was the passion and energy with which Gnahore sang her songs that had the crowd screaming with delight, and man, can the lady move, what a performer!

As for the Bushfire Festival, it is one of the most vibrant, friendly and thoroughly enjoyable events I have ever had the pleasure of taking in.

While Acoustic Africa were the highlight, Busi Mhlongo was a goddess on stage with her bluesy performance, Mozambican Jose Mucavele’s beautiful solo acoustic show made a long-lasting impression and Swaziland’s trumpet maestro, Itallo, provided another high point with his warm blend of Afro-jazz.

Next year pack your bags and head to the Malkerns, because Swaziland has a music festival to rival any other. And those who haven’t caught Acoustic Africa on the Southern African leg of their tour, you’re last chance is at Oppikoppi this weekend.

Lloyd Gedye

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