Originally published in Cue.
Vusi Mahlasela’s dynamic vocals and melodious guitar work became iconic symbols of the struggle against apartheid when he was still in his 20s. Now, approaching his 50th birthday, this self-described troubadour is playing as hard as ever.
During the 1980s, Mahlasela became known as “The Voice” of South Africa. He feels the pressure of the moniker every time he performs because people come to listen to him on account of his legend.
After every show, he says, people always come up to him and say: “We understand now. It’s not just your singing voice; it’s also your message of peace.” Mahlasela credits this message to the men he calls the “grandfathers of our humanity”: Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Mahatma Gandhi.
He wants his music to help people understand abstract concepts like forgiveness and peace. Mahlasela also originally wanted his music to bridge the gap between ideas written in books and poetry and a population oppressed and kept largely illiterate by Bantu Education, saying that it let him play a vital role in “helping people understand what was going on at the time”.
It was also one of the big reasons behind his decision not to go into exile like other artists such as Miriam Makeba. Mahlasela has travelled the world but for him South Africa will always be home.
“An African elephant always dies at home,” he says. Despite having played with artists like Paul Simon, Taj Mahal, Mickey Hart and Makeba, the show that stands out for Mahlasela is a simple charity gig. He had just flown into Johannesburg after the end of a long tour when his cellphone rang.
On the other end of the line was the Nelson Mandela Foundation: “Vusi, Tata wants to see you.” Mahlasela came running. The famous statesman wanted him to become an ambassador for 46664, his global HIV/Aids awareness and prevention campaign.
Mahlasela accepted instantly but before he left, Madiba asked him, “Vusi, tell me, what are you going to be doing for the next couple of days?” Mahlasela replied that he would just be playing a small charity show.
Mandela immediately turned to his wife and said: “Graça, what am I doing that day? Cancel it, I’m going to Vusi’s show.” It is a show that Mahlasela will never forget.