by Gerrit Bester
The teaching and learning of students at the Faculty of Arts and Design started on a high note this year since music legend Dr Vusi Mahlasela, known as ‘The Voice,’ partnered with the Faculty to present master classes to students of the Department of Performing Arts (Music programme).
The collaboration, which foresees to broaden students’ knowledge of South African music styles and reframe their criteria for musical and personal success, is a result of the University conferring an honorary doctorate on Dr Mahlasela late last year.
Dr Mahlasela, praised for his distinct, powerful voice and poetic, optimistic lyrics, describes the honorary degree as “really great, beyond expectation and a rejuvenation of my spirit.” “It also presented me with an opportunity to participate in the teaching and learning of students,” he adds.
Since the honorary doctorate, Dr Mahlasela has been working closely with Dr Rostislava Pashkevitch, Head of the Department of Performing Arts, to finetune the partnership to the benefit of students.
Dr Mahlasela says that, at this stage, the collaboration revolves around the possible notation of his music, which has never been done before. Copyright law is diligently followed in this process, he emphasises.
He also teaches students his unique style of playing, sound and singing. In addition, a project to introduce students to building so-called township guitars is also planned for the second semester. The township guitar is a hand-made instrument with varied strings inspired by the traditional can instruments that have long been played by the resourceful residents in South Africa’s poorer areas.
Dr Mahlasela recalls that the latter is one of the musical instruments that he grew up playing, not realising then that it would bring him this far. He adds that it is his wish that this instrument, one day, also be included in the collection of the world-famous Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix, Arizona, America.
Realising most musical museums featured historical, primarily Western classical instruments, the MIM focuses on the kind of instruments played daily by people worldwide. The museum also displays traditional instruments from all over the world.
Dr Pashkevitch, acknowledged for her collaborative work and pushing her students to read and write music, says the project forms part of Music students’ Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) and is paramount to the Africanisation of the curriculum.
She says the master classes are open to all interested Music students and that it gives them a broader perspective of the music industry. “At first, Dr Mahlasela’s style of music was foreign to the students, but with time they felt comfortable and appreciated the fact that they can learn stylistically from the performer himself.”
Dr Mahlasela says thus far, it has been an exciting journey and that it is not only the students that learn from him but that he also learns from them.
Asked what advice he has for students to make it in this cut-throat industry, he says, “focus, passion and discipline are non-negotiables”. “It’s also important to learn the industry’s business side,” he stresses. “In this industry, one never stops learning.”
“Musical energy is very important. Artists can collaborate, unlike politicians,” he adds.
He says having mentors, such as he is for students now, is also imperative. He recalls the characters frequenting the house of his grandmother, a Shebeen Queen in Mamelodi, who influenced him musically as a child. Another mentor, he says, is Dr Philip Tabane, a South African musician, vocalist, jazz guitarist and band leader who led the group, Malombo.
Nobel Laureate, celebrated author and long-time Vusi campion, Nadine Gordimer, was also like a mother to him. Gordimer once said, “Vusi sings like a bird does, in total response to being alive.”
Dr Mahlasela has shared the stage with prominent artists like Dave Matthews, Sting, Paul Simon, Josh Groban, Ray LaMontage, and Natalie Merchant, among others. Also close to his heart is his collaboration with South African singer Laurika Rauch, with whom he has performed on various occasions.
He performs regularly, most recently at the installation of Prof Tinyiko Maluleke as Vice-Chancellor and Principal of TUT and is closely involved with his Vusi Mahlasela Music Development Foundation (VMMDF). The VMMDF is a charitable music institution committed to preserving and promoting indigenous African music in its diversity through learning, performance, recording and community outreach lessons and projects.
In addition to the TUT honorary degree, he holds honorary degrees from Rhodes University and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Both Drs Mahlasela and Pashkevitch concur that the collaboration will add to the preservation and conservation of the musical heritage of South Africa and that TUT can play a leading role in it.
Dr Vusi Mahlasela with students of the Department of Performing Arts (Music programme) who benefits from master classes he presents at the Department.
Dr Vusi Mahlasela performing during one of the master classes.