Louis Mhlanga may be the best South African musician that nobody knows.
Oh, I'm sure this guitarist/composer/arranger/producer is well known in southern Africa. But if his albums have been released at all in the USA (except for recent exposure on Calabash), I'm not aware of it. Fortunately you can take advantage of the Internet to order straight from South Africa. His melodic hooks and stellar guitar playing are worth it, trust me.
A little background: Mhlanga's parents fled apartheid South Africa and he was born and raised in Zimbabwe. But other musicians lured him back to his homeland, which has been so musically rich (not that Zimbabwe isn't, but the conditions there are another story). His music teaching found him in the Netherlands for a year, where he hooked up with an enduring collaborator, the Dutch bassist Eric Van Der Westen.
Mhlanga has played with and produced albums by a stellar array of musicians, including Andy Narell, Habib Koite, Thomas Mapfumo, Hugh Masekela, Busi Mhlongo, King Sunny Ade, Vusi Mahlasela, Oliver Mtukudzi, Orchestra Baobab... It seems silly to list them all. Suffice to say he's a musical extrovert. And he's musically adventurous and his songs range from traditional African to modern jazz, and even a touch of rock in "Kamba Kemaziso," his tribute to Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower."
I recently had a chance to ask Mhlanga a few questions:
SoundRoots: How important were your teachers/mentors? Who are/were they?
Louis Mhlanga: I am self taught and come from a musical family. My brothers and sisters would bring other musicians at our home and that inspired me a lot too. I grew up in the late 60's when soul music, underground music, blues were still dominant and I listened a lot to that kind of music from Tamla Motown artists and the rock musicians like Grand Funk Railroad to Tower of Power to name a few, there were lots of them.
SR: What music are you listening to? What are your favorite artists or styles of music?
LM: I listen to all African music that I can get hold of and I love George Benson. Earl Klugh, Dwight Sills and other guitar players out there even Spanish guitar players. I also listen to Segovia the late classical guitar maestro.
SR: Describe your favorite experience(s) collaborating with other musicians.
LM: I have enjoyed working with everyone I came across and the experience I shared is of different quality its like smelling a flower to another flower and appreciating different sweet smells. Also I have learnt a lot from meeting and sharing the music.
SR: What non-musical job would you most like to try?
LM: I always wanted to be a medical doctor but I thought about the time which one has to put up in study then I gave it up.
SR: Do you think it's important for musicians to address social and political issues?
LM: Music shapes the culture of our lives and its the most powerful art which can reach the people with a positive message. Of course all the issues of the world can be addressed quicker through music.
SR: What's the story behind "Kamba Kemaziso," in which you quote "All Along the Watchtower"?
LM: "Kamba Kemaziso" means a house full of eyes literally and it's the watch tower. We were asked to do a song in memory of Hendrix, myself and a bass player from Holland, Eric van der Westen, and we chose this song as a dedication.
Download tracks from a live show with Mhlanga and Van Der Westen at the Jazzpower club in the Netherlands (requires a free registration).
Louis Mhlanga Discography:
Louis Mhlanga & Friends: World Traveller (2006, Sheer Sound / Calabash)
Regis Gizavo, Louis Mhlanga & David Mirandon: Stories (2006, Marabi)
Louis Mhlanga: Tinganekwane (2004, Sheer Sound)
Louis Mhlanga & Eric Van Der Westen: Keeping the Dream (2004, EWM)
Louis Mhlanga: Shamwari (2001, Sheer Sound)
Vusi Mahlasela & Louis Mhlanga: Live at the Bass Line (1999, BMG Africa)
Louis Mhlanga & Eric Van Der Westen: Song for Nomsa (2000, BMG Africa)
Musik Ye Afrika [Mhlanga with Jimmy Indi & Iethro Shasha]: Musik Ye Afrika (1997, Upenyu)
Cape Town Magazine has an illuminating interview with Mhlanga.