There was a time when the protests against apartheid in South Africa were strengthened and inspired by a rich musical legacy in the nation. Now that apartheid has been abolished, much of the music that streamed from the townships is changing. But “The Voice” of South Africa, guitarist and singer Vusi Mahlasela, plans to keep that legacy alive.
“It certainly has changed dramatically,” Mahlasela said. “There’s a lot of pop music now and I often worry that we’re losing sight of much of the great music from our greats such as Miriam Makeba, the Dark City Sisters, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens. I’ve been really focused on trying to preserve this township music.”
“I just recently recorded a live album at my grandmother’s shebeen in the Mamelodi township. My grandmother raised me and it was in her bar that I first heard all of this great music and got my start and inspiration. Music and culture evolve and that’s great, but I want to make sure to do my part in preserving what once was and what may be again.”
Mahlasela and his band will be bringing the culture to Sixth and I on Oct. 27, as part of Washington Performing Arts’ season-spanning program, “Home,” which explores the questions of identity and cultural history through a series of curated performances by diverse artists.
Mahlasela, in his youthful days as a composer and performer, served as a determined and forceful rallying figure in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Today, he continues to be acknowledged as a global messenger of peace and compassion.
Mahlasela has seen his share of hardship, as he was held in solitary confinement and repeatedly harassed by police during the racially charged era for the “crime” of writing protest music calling for freedom and human dignity. As a result, his songwriting became even more profuse and directed, serving as a source of self-healing and a balm for his audience.
Today, he is revered as an icon of South Africa’s culture. Recently he has received accolades attesting to his dedication, authenticity and tenacity.
“It’s always nice to be recognized and honored,” he said. “I’ve recently received a couple of honorary doctorate degrees, which has been really humbling but also a bit intimidating, as I had to give speeches at the commencement exercises.”
Last spring, Mahlasela received an honorary doctorate degree from the prestigious Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, and on Freedom Day by former President Jacob Zuma, who honored Mahlasela with the National Order of Ikhamanga, recognizing the singer for “drawing attention to the injustices that isolated South Africa from the global community during the apartheid years.”
“A few years ago, I received the Lifetime Achievement award at the SAMA Awards and that was also very humbling, but at the same time, I wanted to remind them that I’ve got another 30 years of touring in me,” Mahlasela said.
Although he has seen the times change in his long history as a musician, he still has plenty of future plans to keep him busy and touring for a while. In addition to reprising the songs that made him renowned, such as his first recording, “When You Come Back,” he has major projects in the works.
“We’ll release the live township record and I’m also really trying to produce a larger scale festival at home in the Mamelodi township,” he said. “It’s not often that we have big events in the townships, and I’d love to use my voice to help effect a paradigm shift. I also plan to tour more in the States and around the world — traveling and meeting people serves as a huge inspiration in my songwriting.”
Vusi Mahlasela and his band will perform at the Sixth and I (600 I Street NW) on Saturday, Oct. 27. For tickets and more information, go to www.washingtonperformingarts.org.