WHAT do the Dave Matthews Band, Josh Groban and Paul Simon have in common?
They’ve all shared the stage with South African legend, Vusi Mahlasela. The recipient of Sama’s coveted lifetime achievement award will bring his signature sound to The Karoo Lamb Restaurant in Nieu-Bethesda next Saturday, January 12.
Mahlasela’s career hit the fast-track in the early nineties with a compelling debut, When You Come Back.
The album was infectiously optimistic and couldn’t have come at a better time. It went on to become a powerful symbol of South African liberation.
A moving performance of the title track at Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration sealed Mahlasela’s growing reputation.
“We will ring the bells when you come back,” he crooned to those exiled during apartheid.
These familiar words would ring out again 16 years later, this time at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Fifa World Cup in front of 30 000 spectators.
But don’t let the big names and historic events fool you. A brief conversation with the man they call “The Voice” reveals a heart of humble beginnings and honest hard work.
Take his attachment to Pretoria’s Mamelodi township for example. It was here that he started playing music at age seven. His first instrument? A guitar, painstakingly assembled out of fishing gut and an old oil can.
A few years later, young Mahlasela witnessed the destructive forces of apartheid when hundreds of students lost their lives in the Soweto uprising.
“This was a turning point for me,” he said.
“I had to find a way to speak up for my people, and music was an obvious choice.”
But the self-described “world-troubadour” is equal parts poet and musician.
He joined black consciousness ensemble Ancestors of Africa as a young man and began honing a talent for hard-hitting, politically-angled verse.
For a time, the group operated out of the Mamelodi home of physician and activist Dr Fabian Ribeiro.
Mahlasela still lives in the town where it all began, and shows no sign of leaving. And why should he?
“Mamelodi is the great township,” he said.
“Its streets are home, and its people are family. Community is everything to us.”
A lyric from the aptly titled Mamelodi springs to mind: “People live together and never die of loneliness,” the tune goes, “A good feeling when I am here … Home sweet home”.
He’s a homebody for sure, but has no problem taking his message of hope and forgiveness to all corners of the world.
“I’m off to the States at the end of January,” he said.
“But for now I’m excited to be playing in Nieu-Bethesda. It’ll be my first time there, but it won’t be the last.”
Mahlasela’s performance on January 12 will begin at 5pm and entry is free.
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