Multi-award winning musician, Vusi Mahlasela has recently returned from a tour of the USA and Canada and will now be appearing on several South African stages.
Vusi Mahlasela grew up in Mamelodi, just outside of Pretoria, where he still lives today. His childhood was filled with the sounds of black American and African musicians who were banned from the airwaves in apartheid South Africa. The tunes of James Brown, Motown, The Commodores, Mahotella Queens, Mahlatini Queens, Miriam Makeba, Dark City Sisters and Fela Kuti wafted out from the shebeen that his grandmother operated behind their home. Inspired, Mahlasela built his first guitar using fishing line and a cooking oil can and taught himself to play. He formed a little band with his friends from the neighbourhood and they began making music of their own. Mahlasela can’t remember a time when he wasn’t singing as a child. ‘I’m sure I learned to sing before I could talk,’ he says. Music became a way for him to respond to the political situation that prevailed in the country at the time.
Mahlasela began to write songs of justice, freedom, revolution, love, peace and life. He joined The Ancestors of Africa, a poetry group, as well as the Congress of South African Writers, a group of like-minded artists and writers. Here he met Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer who paid for Mahlasela’s first guitar lessons. Joining the group saw his political activism take off. His songs of freedom and human dignity earned him time in solitary confinement and harassment by the police. ‘We were picked up and harassed in all types of situations, going to church every Sunday and being forced to sign a piece of paper at the police station first; if I was going out of town for a wedding, it had to be reported to the police first. They kept on harassing me with the things I was doing. But I stuck to it,’ says Mahlasela. His music became a source of healing, both for himself and his listeners. As, Nadine Gordimer put it ‘Vusi sings as a bird does, in total response to being alive.’
In 1992, Mahlasela was signed to Shifty Records/BMG Records and finally recorded When You Come Back – a collection of songs that he had been writing throughout his life. The title track became an anthem, ringing out loud in cars, at parties and in homes – by listeners of all races. It has gone on to win many local and international fans for this humble songbird, is still rightfully considered a South African classic and continues to amaze music lovers the world over. In 1994, Mahlasela performed the song at Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration.
In 2002, Dave Matthews signed Mahlasela to his label ATO Records and released The Voice, a collection of songs from Mahlasela’s South African recordings. Guiding Star and 2011’s Say Africa, produced by Taj Mahal, soon followed. His albums have received mass critical acclaim. As the LA Times wrote, Mahlasela is a ‘rare and mesmerising musical mind… with a voice that seems to have few limits.’ Mahlasela has shared the stage with Sting, Josh Groban, Paul Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Hugh Masekela, Angelique Kidjo, Bela Fleck, Ray LaMontagne, Amos Lee and many more. He has performed at two TED conferences, Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday, Mandela Day and more. But, perhaps his biggest performance to date was delivering ‘When You Come Back’ to an 85 000 strong audience at the FNB Stadium in Soweto, to help launch the 2010 FIFA World Cup festivities in South Africa. ‘When You Come Back’, also served as the theme song for ITV’s World Cup coverage in the UK.
In 2013, Mahlasela received an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University in Grahamstown. A couple of weeks later on Freedom Day, South Africa’s President awarded Mahlasela with the National Order of Ikhamanga, recognising him for ‘drawing attention to the injustices that isolated South Africa from the global community during the apartheid years.’
The following year, the South African Music Awards (SAMAs) honoured Mahlasela with a Lifetime Achievement Award to recognise his accomplishments both at home and abroad, 20 years after the release of When You Come Back. In celebration, Mahlasela put on a show at the Lyric Theatre in Johannesburg, resulting in the release of Sing to the People. The album is a live recording that includes songs from the first 20 years of his career.
At the end of 2014, Mahlasela embarked on a global collaborative tour, ‘20 Years of Democracy’, with Hugh Masekela. The duo paid homage with a collection of ‘freedom’ songs, including many of their own, on their first-ever joint tour. The tour culminated in a show at Carnegie Hall in October, kicking off the South Africa Festival. Next on his agenda is RMB Starlight Classics on 5 September at the Country Club Johannesburg.
Mahlasela will also be performing at this year’s Standard Bank Joy of Jazz on the Mbira Stage on 25 September.