Saturday, October 28, 2006

In Praise of Louis Mhlanga

I've always been a big fan of the Zimbabwean (well, now South African) guitarist and vocalist Louis Mhlanga (pronounced "Um-shlahn-ga"), and a recent trip to South Africa and a chance to hear him at the Grahamstown Arts Festival only solidified and verified this. His playing draws in part from Zimbabwean mbira playing, part Malian kora, part South African mbaqanga get the picture. If it's a style, he's found a way to incorporate it into his work.

For those of you who have not yet heard him, I really, REALLY strongly advise you fix this. He's got a Best Of called World Traveller (which I reviewed!), and it's a pretty decent place to start. The best of compilation focus on his more danceable side, and his smoother side, which might put off some people, but it does demonstrate his very unique guitar gifts.

However, I feel very strongly that Louis is at his best in pared-down settings. And fortunately, there are three albums that present him in such a way! The first two are duets he did with a Dutch acoustic bassist named Eric van der Weston - Song for Nomsa and Keeping the Dream. Both are delicately beautiful albums, featuring Louis on vocals and acoustic guitar - if you had to pick one, I'd say Song for Nomsa, if for no other reason than for the heartbreakingly beautiful ballad "Ndiwe." But really, if you like beautiful South African guitar work, both are hard to pass up. Warning - if you've heard World Traveller, these two albums are very, very different.

The final album worth checking out is his duet album with Vusi Mahlasela - bet you didn't know such a thing existed? Well, here it is - Live at the Bassline. American fans of Vusi Mahlasela are in the dark about this gem of an album, as it (sadly) is only available in South Africa, and is not included in the compilation album "The Voice." However, for those willing to pay shipping costs (which aren't that much), it contains striking new renditions of some of his famous songs - "Silang Mabele" gets rescued from the synthy-schlock that is the original version - in this vocals/acoustic guitars version. Vusi's voice is a bit rougher on this live album than one might be used to, but still highly, highly expressive. And Louis' guitar work is stunning - phasing in and out of the beat, providing solos ranging from the gentle and thoughtful work on "Silang Mabele" to the more technically impressive (inspiring, maybe?) work on "Woza." Louis' voice is not nearly as powerful or emotive as Vusi's, for sure, but he certainly holds his own.

So if you haven't heard him - check this guy out. He may be the best guitarist operating in South Africa right now (sorry, Errol Dyers).


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