Known as "the Voice" in his native South Africa, Vusi Mahlasela has used his mighty pipes to protest Apartheid and comfort his neighbors during times of struggle. His first studio album, 1992's When You Come Back, made him a star in the U.S. as well, which in turn led to a recording deal with Dave Matthews' ATO Records.
Mahlasela changed his tune a bit following the end of Apartheid in 1994. Since then, he has stressed reconciliation, not resistance, in his hopeful folk music. On his latest album, Sing to the People, he revisits songs from When You Come Back, hoping to show that their ideas are still relevant and universal. I asked him about the album before his Feb. 15 show at the UW Union South Sett.
Isthmus How did you find your voice in the chaos of Apartheid?
Mahlasela: I grew up a happy kid and wasn't aware of the injustices in my country. In 1976, I witnessed the Soweto Uprising, and my political education began. I joined the Congress of South African Writers, and we wrote songs and poems about what was happening.… I began to sing, and some of my songs became anthems against the struggle, such as "When You Come Back."
How has your relationship with the songs on When You Come Back changed over time?
I had been writing those songs all my life. Their meanings have evolved, but the overall universal messages remain the same. I sing of love, of freedom, of the human struggle.
Despite lots of international attention, you've stayed true to your roots. Why do you think this is?
I grew up in the Mamelodi Township, where I still live. I'll never leave it; it's where my heart is. [But] it's been amazing to travel all over the world and share the stage with many amazing musicians I've admired from afar. One of my proudest moments was at the World Cup, when I got to help invite the world to Africa.