As one of the most cherished musical voices in post-apartheid South Africa, Vusi Mahlasela has been consumed with communicating the spirit and songs of his homeland to any ears that would receive them.
There were plenty in his native township of Mamelodi, where he still lives, and throughout South Africa. As apartheid was ending in the early '90s, he issued a song called When You Come Back that served as a call to exiles and political outcasts and the celebration that awaited their return.
The song has been viewed as an anthem ever since, as much for the angelic command of Mahlasela's singing as for the lyrical message. In 1994, he sang it at Nelson Mandela's inauguration. In 2010, he performed at the 2010 World Cup in Soweto's Orlando Stadium. And then there were the times he brought When You Come Back to audiences throughout the world.
So it seemed appropriate to commemorate the song's 20th anniversary. And what better way to do that than with yet more music. Last month, Mahlasela released a new concert, Sing to the People: Celebrating 20 Years of When You Come Back. He is now in the midst of United States tour that will include his first Kentucky performance. He will be the featured artist at a free convocation concert on Thursday at Berea College.
"No, I didn't see this celebration coming," Mahlasela said recently by phone from Mamelodi. "But I'm enjoying the fact that this music is still going and still going places, mixing with other musicians. I've really enjoyed that. Still, people tell me, 'You've spent all this time being a performing artist, you should honor that.' So I said, 'OK, we will try to do that as well as celebrate this beautiful music.' So clearly this is good. I'm glad that we did it.
"But I also like to surprise myself, I think. One day I listened back to this recording and thought, 'Oh, wow. I definitely want to go with this.'"
Musical ability came quickly to Mahlasela as a child despite the fact that music itself was far from plentiful. African and American songs were either banned under apartheid or unavailable because of a cultural boycott of South Africa set in place by the United Nations in protest of apartheid. But sounds filtered through nonetheless.
"There was quite a bit of choral music in the schools. I heard a lot of a cappella singing, as well. Music was part of many different vocations. There were songs and music playing for parties, weddings, funerals. There was music for church, for when a baby was born. There was music when it was time for harvesting or when the first rain came. The music told our history, of what has happened. It helped us come to understand why there were cultures and creations.
"But it was very difficult to hear music from other places. Even some African music we couldn't hear because of the cultural boycott. But we did manage to hear some of the music from Radio Freedom. They played some music from America. But they also played music from home. We heard Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens and the Dark City Sisters. That's where we heard the music of Fela (Kuti). That's where we heard the music from Mali. But elsewhere, it was very difficult. You could not hear it on radio or television.
The government "thought the African music would make us too proud of ourselves. They were afraid of the history of this music and of what it meant. But the lifting of the cultural boycott and the rise of the African National Congress meant a lot for our music and our country in letting the world know who we are."
In recent years, several American artists have come to champion Mahlasela's music, including South Africa-born Dave Matthews, who released Mahlasela's four most recent albums on his ATO label; banjo pioneer Béla Fleck, who recruited the singer for his 2009 Africa-inspired album Throw Down Your Heart and tour; and bluesman Taj Mahal, who produced Mahlasela's 2011 album Say Africa.
But Mahlasela's truest heroes are those who led the cause of peace, freedom and solidarity in present-day South Africa: Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
"They gave me reason and hope to think one day, we will celebrate freedom."
IF YOU GO
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 7
Where: Berea College Phelps Stokes Chapel, Berea
Learn more: (859) 985-3000, Berea.edu.
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.