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. His 2001 international debut, Shamwari, established him as that rare guitarist able to span African traditional pop and jazz without compromising either. Mhlanga’s unclassifiable music never quite fit the sharply defined categories of the South African music industry. But he is a world- class artist now, so this should impede him no longer.
Perhaps Mhlanga’s most impressive recording to date came about almost by chance, when the Alliance Francais introduced him to a maverick accordion maestro from Madagascar, Règis Gizavo. They ended up touring with French percussionist David Mirandon, and then recording the knockout trio album, Stories, in 2006. These 12 tracks penned by Gizavo and Mhlanga deliver punch and authenticity without a hint of the breezy superficiality sometimes associated with southern African jazz. What really puts this session over the moon is the stunning sense of rhythm the players evoke, mingling 4/4 and 6/8 time, and nailing the subtle accents that distinguish, for example, a Malagasy 12/8, which emphasizes the second triplet, and a Zimbabwean one, which emphasizes the first.
“Myself, I am a rhythmic person,” says Mhlanga. “The melody to a song, that’s the cherry on the top. When I met with Regis, that’s the thing I picked up immediately. Whether you like it or not, the accordion is an instrument that forces you to play in a rhythmic way, and he has mastered it. It’s all about rhythm for me.” This statement gets at the very essence of so much African guitar music. No surprise it comes from one of the few guitarists who are willing to take on the sprawling entirety of the continent’s many amazing guitar genres.