Two Decades On, Vusi Mahlasela Still Sings 'To The People'

Jan 24, 2013
Originally published on January 24, 2013 6:36 pm

South African singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela came of age during the 1970s, an era dominated by the violent student uprising in Soweto. From the start, his musical expression has been about love and hope for his country. His songs play as anthems of South Africa's rise from apartheid to democracy and have helped earn him the nickname "The Voice."

Mahlasela's new album, Sing to the People, is a live recording of his 20th-anniversary show in Johannesburg. In this concert retrospective, he reflects on his career, as he performs the songs that made him a musical icon.

"Silang Mabele," for instance, translates as "crushing corn." A metaphor for fighting poverty, it reveals a lot about this globetrotting folk troubadour — his connection to the land, his lyrical musicality and his deep commitment to uplifting Africa.

Mahlasela's compilation is loaded with heartfelt, elegant passion, and the personal weight of his emotion can be overwhelming. But there are moments throughout the set when the singer and his band cut loose, as they do on "Tswang Tswang Tswang," a township romp laden with gospel overtones.

Near the end of his performance, Mahlasela sings the song that first put him on the map in South Africa: "When You Come Back." When it made its debut in 1990, it played as a fanciful dream — a vision of a time when exiles would return to help build the nation.

Today, that message resonates for much of the African continent. Quietly, behind grim headlines, some African economies are on the rise, and Mahlasela isn't alone in urging African exiles to think about coming home. The notion could hardly have a more appealing messenger.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Finally, this hour, musical anthems that mark South Africa's rise from apartheid to democracy. The musician Vusi Mahlasela is known simply as The Voice. His new live album looks back on a more than two-decade career. Banning Eyre has this review.

BANNING EYRE, BYLINE: Vusi Mahlasela came of age during the violent era of the Soweto student uprising in the '70s. From the start, his musical expression has been all about his love and hopes for his country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EYRE: The title of this song translates as "crushing corn." It's a metaphor for getting down to work to fight poverty. And it reveals a lot about this globetrotting folk troubadour - his connection to the land, his lyrical musicality, his deep commitment to uplifting Africa. On this concert CD, Vusi is looking back, performing the songs that made him a South African musical icon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EYRE: In this song, another ode to his beautiful homeland, Vusi's voice and guitar complete one another perfectly, nothing else needed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EYRE: Vusi's concert retrospective is loaded with heartfelt, elegant passion. The personal weight of the singer's emotions can be overwhelming. But here and there, he and his band just cut loose and have fun, as on this township romp with powerful gospel overtones, "Tswang Tswang Tswang."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EYRE: Near the end of the set, Vusi sings the song that first put him on the map in South Africa. It's called "When You Come Back." When it debuted in 1990, the song played as a fanciful dream, a vision of a time when exiles would return to help build the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VUSI MAHLASELA: (Singing) Sing now, Africa. Sing loud. Sing to the people.

EYRE: Today, that message resonates for much of the African continent. Quietly, behind grim headlines, some African economies are on the rise. And Vusi is not alone in urging African exiles to think about coming home. The notion could hardly have a more appealing messenger.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: The album is called "Sing To The People" by Vusi Mahlasela. Banning Eyre is senior editor at AfroPop.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.