Louis Mhlanga

Article excerpt

SOME OF AFRICA'S BEST GUITARISTS COME FROM particular ethnic traditions. They can be brilliant at what they do, but not always well versed in other genres. Enter Louis Mhlanga, born in Zimbabwe in 1956, a veteran of the South African jazz scene, and, today, a champion of African guitar writ large. "Guitars all over Africa are married," says Mhlanga. "The guitar can emulate a traditional instrument. For example, the way Habib Koite of Mali plays, you actually can hear the kora [a 21-stringed harp]. In Zimbabwe, the way some guitarists play, you can hear the mbira [or thumb piano]. In other places, you hear the marimba." Mhlanga's third international release, World Traveler [Sheer Sound], makes this point elegantly with collaborations involving Koite, Jamaican jazzman Ernest Ranglin, and members of the Senegalese salsa band Orchestra Baobab, among others. The album spans jazz-inspired instrumentals, Wes Montgomery octave riffs, vocal numbers, and a finger-style acoustic ballad. Mhlanga plays both acoustic guitars and his prized Yamaha SG 3000, with its signature, singing tone. It is the work of a mature, all-around artist with a big heart, and big ears.

Mhlanga came of age in the '70s, when his nation was fighting a bloody war of independence. He admired the traditionally derived pop music of local luminaries such as Thomas Mapfumo--Mhlanga played on and co-produced one of Mapfumo's late-'80s albums--but his taste also ran to Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin. "That's what I started playing," he recalled. "But even then, I also knew that I wanted to venture into more African music." His first recording languished for a decade before BMG released it in South Africa in the early '90s. …