Renowned musicians, Hugh Masekela and Vusi Mahlasela. (Courtesy Photos)
Two of South Africa’s true freedom fighters and renowned musicians, Hugh Masekela and Vusi Mahlasela came together recently to honor 20 years since the start of democracy in South Africa and the official end of apartheid. In a collaborative performance Masekela and Mahlasela honored their homeland and the millions of South Africans who fought for independence. Performing South African freedom songs and some of their classics, Masekela and Mahlasela brought a capacity-crowd at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium in Washington D.C. to their feet Feb. 22.
Songs of pain and protest became the backdrop to apartheid struggles as detailed in the documentary Amandla!, setting the tone for love and hope as well as lamenting lost comrades and relatives. Masekela and Mahlasela joked lightheartedly with the audience that songs were so important to struggle that freedom fighters often unwittingly gave their fighting positions away by singing.
“When English generals heard the songs they would tell their officers ‘No, no, old chap, we must wait until the third song to fire. This is simply marvelous!’ And then after the third song, the general would give the command to fire,” Masekela said.
Masekela described how the Urban Areas Act, designed to ethnically separate people and to take land way from Africans illegally, led to a tradition of masking messages within song. For example, when Blacks were asked to leave Sofiatown, an area 5 miles from the central business districts of Johannesburg, the Army and police bulldozed the people’s homes when they refused to leave. They were relocated to a massive ghetto called Meadowlands, which spawned a protest song of the same name.
“ grew up in the townships at the same time although we were not together. Every township was like a little island of exile because you have to move in and out of there with special papers. And so we learned to live there and that’s what today’s songs are about,” Masekela said.
Known simply as “The Voice,” Mahlasela is celebrated as one of the most distinctive and powerful vocalists of any musical genre. Growing up in the Mamelodi Township outside of Pretoria, Mahlasela said he grew up a happy kid, blind to the injustices in his country. His political education began as he witnessed the devastating massacre of more than 200 Black South Africans in the Soweto Uprising. He responded through his music, inspiring other musicians and listeners around him. Mahlasela’s songs of hope are said to connect apartheid-scarred South Africa with its promise for a better future.
“I’ve always looked up to Hugh and he’s always been a big supporter of mine, so we have a good dynamic both on and off the stage. We have a lot of fun together and the band we have formed for this project has really gelled well… it’s very tight,” Mahlasela said. ”We want to share it with the world and give everyone a piece of who we are. People should take part in the world around them.”
The “20 Years of Freedom” concert was co-presented by GW Lisner and Washington Performing Arts.