Vusi Mahlasela is known in South Africa as The Voice. And he sings high and tremulous and sweet, and you know he could not cease singing any more than can a Citril or a Sugarbird. He accompanies himself with wonderful finger picking on his acoustic guitar.
He is The Voice of Mamelodi. Vusi was born in the Mamelodi Township in South Africa which was named after a female German doctor who cared for the people. When she arrived the place was known as Vlakfontein. As she provided medical care, she would sing the tunes she had heard when she visited the celebrations, weddings, and shebeens of the country side. The people came to call her Ma Melodi, which means “Mother of Melody.” She must have been a great healer and a great singer because the people renamed the township after her. Can you imagine?
Vusi is The Voice of the people. As he explains in the liner notes: “This album is dedicated to all in every walk of life who are the voice against any injustices committed to men, women and children of the world, and the ignorance of those suffering the indignity of man – let everyone who cares become a voice to preach for a world of cultural Peace.”
And so now we are listening to “When You Come Back,” a joyous celebration of the emergence of African culture after the downfall of the Apartheid system of segregation. The song begins with a rhythmically free acapella solo by Vusi – his voice soaring from his high euphoneous natural range to ringing falsettos.
This is the unknown grave
The one who died maintaining his might
His will being so strong and musically inclined
His sad melodies coming out like smoke from the woodfire
And he sang:
Sing now, Africa
Sing to the people
Let them give something to the world and not just take from it.
The music and art of those who were destroyed by Apartheid will never be lost. But this song is not just about the South African heroes whose legacy will endure. It is also about how the culture of all Africa – the music, art, social systems, economics, laws, and spirituality – so long crushed by racism and greed, will forever endure, and will be reborn and flourish when the subjugation has been vanquished. And Vusi, The Voice, will lead the way, even as the tyranny persists.
Our lost African music, will turn into the music of the people
Yes the people’s music, for the people’s culture
And I’ll be the one who’ll climb up the mountain
Reaching for the top of our Africa dais
While the poor women working for the lazy lord, sing!
Also included on this album is a powerful version of that incomparable you-must-not-die-without-hearing-it song, “Weeping.” This song was originally composed and recorded by a South African group of white musicians called Bright Blue. Americans became acquainted with this song from Josh Groban’s splendid performance with Ladysmith Black Mambazo on his Awake album. It is an unequaled account of the stupidity and futility and cruelty and heartbreak of bigotry and I say it again: you must not die without hearing it.
Vusi Mahlasela, “When You Come Back,” Vusimuzi Music c/o BMG Africa Music Publishing (ASCAP) (2003). From Vusi Mahlasela, The Voice, ATO Records, ATO 0011 (2003). Album Design – Emily Philpott/The Mill; Photography – Costa Economedes, Martin Beck, Lance Nawa.