Friday, April 21, 2006

Vusi Mahlasela - The "Voice" of South Africa

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Vusi Mahlasela’s music captures the unbridled beauty of South Africa... The singular power of his voice and guitar carries his audience into many subtle, ethereal landscapes of Africa's heart and soul. Most of Vusi Mahlasela's life has been dedicated to the struggle to overcome apartheid, but his sound extends far beyond a pedantic political message or one-dimensional rants. The fascinating colors of his musical palate create wonderfully imaginative stories and artistry around the basic facts of social injustice and deprivation in Africa. Vusi came and performed in Denver this summer, and it was an honor to interview him and write this article for The Denver Post. It was also an honor to see just how much one African brother with a guitar and an incredible voice can touch one’s soul.

Vusi Mahlasela - The "Voice" of South Africa Reaches Out
From his boyhood, when he taught himself how to play guitar with a handmade instrument that he constructed out of fishing line and tin cans, Vusi Mahlasela seemed destined to touch the world with his music. Growing up in Mamelodi Township, just outside of Pretoria, South Africa, Vusi Mahlasela’s talent soon became more than just youthful precociousness or a pleasant pastime. In the tradition of the poet-troubadour, Mahlasela would turn his poetry and music toward the suffering and injustices of apartheid, gradually transforming himself into one of South Africa’s most well-known artists and strongest voices in the anti-apartheid movement. Today Mahlasela’s sound and stage persona is so distinctive that he is known in South Africa as simply, “The Voice.”

In Denver, on June 22, Mahlasela will kick-off a month-long tour of concerts and music festivals in the United States and Europe, culminating with Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD in Reading, England and Les Nuits Atypiques de Langon, in Langon, France. Mahlasela is being brought to Denver by the Swallow Hill Music Association, and will be performing at the First Divine Science Church at 14 and Williams St. in Capitol Hill.

Mahlasela’s summer tour comes fresh off the success of his music in the soundtrack for “Tsotsi,” a South Film that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film earlier this year. Beyond winning the Oscar, “Tsotsi” – the story of a young gangster who hijacks a car, only to discover an infant in the back seat – has also won critical acclaim for its music, which introduces the driving force and beat of “kwaito,” South Africa’s homegrown corollary of hip hop. The rebelliousness, linguistic machinations and bravado of kwaito are perfectly complemented by Mahlasela’s spiritual soprano, and deeply emotional, ambient meditations reflecting the conscience of the film. The “Tsotsi” soundtrack also includes “Silang Mabele,” one of Mahlasela’s most popular songs, a traditional African melody about work and grinding corn, which Mahlasela reinvented into a call for the world to work on ending poverty.

With the success of “Tsotsi,” Mahlasela’s music is reaching new audiences all around the world. The exposure has been valuable, as Mahlasela was recently persuaded by his good friend Dave Matthews (who also is South African) to sign with Matthews’ ATO label, giving him new visibility in North America and Europe. In 2003, ATO produced The Voice, a collection of some of Mahlasela’s best work, compiled with an eye toward broadening Mahlasela’s appeal as an international performer.

Mahlasela has been pleased with his involvement with “Tsotsi,” as he works toward a transition from being an anti-apartheid activist to finding new pathways as an artist.

“People know me and my music for instilling hope. There is always something to talk about with the times changing around you and the people around you,” Mashlasela said in a telephone interview from his home in Mamelodi. “But now my music has changed in some ways, because one needs to develop as an artist. I’m not only writing about South Africa but also about the continent of Africa as well.”

Mashlasela explained that some of the music for his new album – which is currently untitled but is due out this fall – is about the historic dispossession of the indigenous San people of Southern Africa, and particularly their oppression by the government of Botswana, which has been accused of destroying their identity and means for survival.

Mahlasela, who is known for a dreamy acoustic sound and subtle African rhythms and blended with deep, resonant vocal harmonies, spoke enthusiastically about his new album. The new project includes collaborations with some of South Africa’s top recording artists, such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Hugh Masekela and the Soul Brothers.

“The new album is concentrated on much more than just the acoustic sound of me and my voice. It’s sort of like the songs directed themselves where they wanted to go,” Mahlasela said, adding that the production has generated a lot of “buzz” in South Africa’s music community. “Lately we’ve found there are quite a lot of musicians who want to come and participate. Every song is demanding.”

Mahlasela is developing the new album with his long-time producer, Lloyd Ross. Given the tremendous range of styles, genres and musicians in South Africa, Mahlasela and Ross have learned to work together to find the right artists for different productions, and at times they take their recording equipment into outlying rural communities to capture traditional music and instrumentation.

“Most of the time I know there are certain people I want to work with for the album or on various songs. And maybe Lloyd also will know people who know how to do certain things for a sound that I think should be there,” Mahlasela explained. “If there’s something we’re looking for and I don’t know how to create it, maybe the producer knows and he will have the connection. It develops by working together.”

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Conflict Diamonds: Africa's Hidden Pain

Nothing shines like a diamond, and probably nothing else in this world is the source of so much greed and misplaced suffering. To examine the whole issue of what has been happening with illegal diamonds is an eye-opening experience. Doug Farrah's book, "Blood from Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror," is a fascinating expose of the international criminals, moral degenerates and terrorists exploiting the illicit diamond trade in Africa.


Conflict Diamonds: Africa's Hidden Pain

The great reggae artist Peter Tosh was fond of saying, “I am from Africa. I stone you with diamonds. I stone you with gold.” Tosh loved these patois poetic references to Africa, and he was always enamored by the continent’s incredible abundance of mineral wealth. In his song “Mama Africa,” he describes the Motherland as “the maker of diamonds, Mama, the maker of gold.” But beyond the profound natural forces that create the mysterious beauty of diamonds and gold are equally astounding transformations in the human world that create the massive demand and multi-billion dollar profits of the global gem industry. Diamonds are cherished worldwide as symbols of love, wealth, power, beauty, glamour and success. But behind all the shine and bling of ghetto fabulous rappers, traditional Hollywood glitz and the mass appeal of wedding bands, earrings and necklaces—lies the sad fact that over the years conditions in Africa have made buying diamonds a human rights issue.


South Africa – The Beginnings of a New Industry

Driving through Johannesburg, South Africa, one can’t help noticing heaps of artificial hills and small mountain ridges, layered with golden, yellow-hued dust. Along the main highways, or from downtown skyscrapers, a vast series of rolling plateaus—man-made mountains created by the debris of gold mines—can be seen stretching east to west, as the outer, visible signs of the world’s largest gold deposits. It soon becomes obvious to visitors that this ridge that encompasses Johannesburg, Pretoria and many outlying smaller cities fuels the giant economic engine of South Africa.

Some 250 kilometers to the southwest, in Kimberly, near the confluence of the Vaal and Orange Rivers, is the Great Hole, another man-made oddity protruding from nature. With a circumference approximately one mile, and a depth of about 700 feet, the Great Hole was formed with the removal of more than 22 million tons of earth and stands as a monument to humanity’s hunger for the money to be made from mining diamonds. The gaping hole has a frightening and horrid presence; until it is seen, it is hard to imagine that something of this nature can actually exist, and it invokes archetypal fears of falling in pits or caves or being consumed in great darkness.

The gold reefs stretching around Johannesburg and the Great Hole are symbols of Western civilization’s contact with Africa’s hidden treasures. With frenzied fury, white miners, engineers, merchants and financiers began extracting diamonds in what became the Great Hole without any regard for the benefit of the land or its indigenous African people. As capital consolidated all the claims into the De Beers Mining Company, the kings of the new diamond industry experimented with a system of labor where Africans were confined to the most arduous, backbreaking work and were housed in sparse, prison-like dormitories called hostels. The hostel encampments allowed De Beers to maintain strict control of its African workers and created the foundation of the migrant labor populations—in both the diamond and gold industries—that eventually formed the financial backbone of apartheid.

Throughout the 20th century De Beers amassed billions in profits while paying its black workers pittance wages that were carefully calculated to a level just above the subsistence living conditions of rural African communities. With its gigantic surplus value De Beers formed itself into an unprecedented global diamond syndicate, controlling the production as well as the sale, pricing and distribution of diamonds worldwide. The shrewd capitalist elite at De Beers wielded extraordinary influence on the consumer demand side of the equation as well. The “A Diamond is Forever” advertising campaign—which De Beers started in 1938—is considered one of the most successful of all time. It created the notion that diamonds symbolize marital love and commitment (and thus never to be resold), and craftily identified diamonds as a luxury item synonymous with the glamour of celebrities, movie stars, royalty and high society.


The 1990’s: The Emergence of “Conflict Diamonds”

By the 1990s--just over a century since its inception--the De Beers diamond industry cartel remained more or less intact, controlling some 60 to 80 percent of the world diamond trade valued at more than $8 billion annually. After the freeing of Nelson Mandela and the dismantling of apartheid, the outcry over the plight of African diamond and gold miners in South Africa subsided and their oppression was more or less forgotten, or perhaps even legitimized—in all its racial ugliness and sad injustices—with the birth of the “New South Africa.” With the low-wage, hostel migrant labor systems firmly entrenched in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana—and with high consumer prices maintained at inflated levels by the De Beers cartel—the tradition of African exploitation by the diamond market forces morphed into new frontiers. As quickly as apartheid seemed to fall apart, various rebel groups, militia leaders and warlords across Africa suddenly discovered the military hardware, wealth and power that diamonds could bring them. In Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, civil wars and regional conflicts were fomented by arms merchants who used the diamond trade to bankroll local armies while making fortunes through subterfuged networks of front companies and transnational corporations. The profits also filled the coffers of Al Qaeda, and possibly Hezbollah–terrorist organizations notorious for their violence and human rights abuses.

In Angola, the infamous UNITA rebel strongman Jonas Savimbi—who previously had been supported by the apartheid government—found in the trade of “conflict diamonds,” a new source of wealth to sustain his guerilla movement. Despite a negotiated peace settlement and years of UN economic, military and diplomatic sanctions, Savimbi and his UNITA forces were able to re-arm and resume the Angolan civil war based on the proceeds of diamond sales from UNITA-held territories. While the resumption of the Angolan civil war first drew the attention of the United Nations Security Council to the issue of conflict diamonds, it was not until Savimbi, along with two of his senior brigadiers, was ambushed and murdered by government forces in February 2002 that UNITA was finally disbanded and its diamond trading activities ceased.

While Savimbi’s violent intimidation and megalomania was legendary—it seems the worst conflict diamond abuses occurred in Sierra Leone. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel force headed by strongman Foday Sankoh, waged a civil war in Sierra Leone for 10 years by controlling the diamonds fields on Sierra Leone’s eastern region bordering Liberia. Unfortunately for the people of Sierra Leone, the diamonds there are of very high quality and can be found on the earth’s surface, accessible to anyone with a few basic hand tools. Much like Savimbi, Sankoh was brutal in suppressing anyone who opposed his rule; but Sankoh’s trademark tactic was to amputate the hands of locals to terrorize them into working the diamond fields. Amnesty International estimates that the RUF eventually mutilated about some 20,000 people, hacking off hands, arms and legs and otherwise maiming or butchering with machetes and axes. Working in alliance with Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, Sankoh pushed his blood diamonds on to the world market, exchanging them for weapons and cash that sustained their political power. The RUF’s reign of terror finally came to an end with the intervention by British and Guinean special forces who slipped into the country and crushed the rebel army. Sankoh was arrested and eventually died in captivity while being tried for war crimes, including crimes against humanity, rape, sexual slavery and extermination.

Conflict diamonds also created problems in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation that had finally witnessed a rebel movement overthrowing Mobuto Sese Seko, a dictator siezed power in a coup in 1965 and ruthlessly pillaged his country of billions of dollars. But shortly after coming to power in 1997, the new government of Laurent Kabila began to experience a wave of insurgency in its eastern regions. Once again, the same pattern evidenced in Angola and Sierra Leone emerged in DRC. The eastern diamond mining regions of the DRC were overwhelmed by rebel factions, primarily the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo, or FDLR, which were being supported by neighboring Uganda and Rwanda. The sale of diamonds from the FDLR on the international market provided resources for unending geopolitical conflict between various rebel factions, DRC and Uganda and Rwanda. Despite periodic negotiations and peace agreements, the fighting continues, resulting in the forced displacement of Congolese people living the mining areas, as well myriads of human rights abuses.


Global Activism and Global Action

During most of the Sierra Leone civil war, the international community was somewhat unaware of or indifferent to the atrocities committed by the RUF. Thanks to blistering international human rights campaigns by Amnesty International and Global Witness, public knowledge of the abuses increased, and grotesque pictures of amputated arms and hands threatened to tarnish idealized consumer images of diamonds as symbols of purified marital love. The Amnesty International and Global Witness “blood diamonds” campaigns, along with appeals by the United Nations, had a strong impact on the international diamond industry, which began discussions in 1999 on developing a regulatory framework to trace diamonds from their point of origin. Fuel to the fire was added by a November 2001 Washington Post investigative report by Doug Farrah linking $20 million in conflict diamonds sales to al Qaeda operatives as well as a diamond dealer associated with Hezbollah. Farrah’s expose provided strong evidence demonstrating that al Qaeda was transforming its capital assets into hard-to-trace mineral commodities, particularly diamonds and tanzanite.

The industry negotiations culminated in the formation of the World Diamond Council, composed of representatives of diamond traders and diamond manufacturers and government observers, as well as the Kimberly Process, a new certification and paper identification process tracing rough diamonds to their place of origin. Established in November, 2002, the Kimberly Process requires diamond producing countries to provide a Kimberly Process Certificate verifying the origin of all rough diamonds mined within their borders; the certificates must also accompany the sale of diamonds at all subsequent export and import transfers. While the organizational structure and regulatory framework of the Kimberly Process is impressive, some NGOs have complained that the process is flawed as it relies too much on industry self-regulation and is susceptible to corruption at the government certification level. Nonetheless, the attempt at regulation of the massive diamond industry represents a step forward in stemming the dangerous trafficking of blood diamonds.


Sadly, diamond mining in Africa—and the massive profits of the diamond industry—have always been associated with the exploitation and hidden pain of African people. But with the most grevious abuses of the sales of conflict diamonds abating, and the diamond industry moving into a new era of regulation, at least some of Africa’s suffering is being reduced. Newlywed couples admiring the gleaming beauty of their wedding rings seldom give thought to the hapless miners who live and labor in horrible conditions so that comfortable Westerners can enjoy these “precious” gems. African Americans themselves rarely contemplate these connections, or the fact that the high demand and supposed “scarcity” of diamonds has been artificially manufactured by the De Beers cartel. Rappers sporting their bling have unconsciously bought into the De Beers hype, propagating their egos on the twisted machinations of an elaborate profit-making scheme of distorted value.

Undoubtedly, human rights groups have changed the problem and perception of conflict diamonds, causing consumers to look beyond surface appearences into the some of the forces behind the mining and distribution of diamonds. Activists have forced more regulation, more conscience, more concern and caring on the industry. Perhaps with time, people around the world will also learn to see more of the mystery and humanity of Africa reflected in the magnificence and brilliance of the gemstones themselves.