It’s been 20 years since the people of South Africa elected their first black president, Nelson Mandela, thus symbolically ending the era of legalized segregation and discrimination known as apartheid. To commemorate the milestone, South African musical legends Hugh Masekela and Vusi Mahlasela perform a cross section of South African music about love, resistance, community, and happiness in their 20 Years of Freedom concert tour, coming to Berkeley on March 11.
Masekela has dazzled international audiences on the trumpet and flugelhorn for over 50 years. Throughout his solo career, he’s worked with Dizzy Gillespie, the Byrds, Fela Kuti, Marvin Gaye, Herb Alpert, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and more. His initial stay in the U.S. and enrollment at the Manhattan School of Music wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Harry Belafonte and fellow South African musician and childhood friend Miriam Makeba. In the early 1960s, he released his debut album Trumpet Africaine, and didn’t return home to South Africa until 1990, when Nelson Mandela left Victor Vestor prison a free man.
Around the same time, in the early ’90s, Mahlasela entered the scene performing political folk music. During apartheid, he was held in solitary confinement and harassed by police for writing songs about dignity, revolution, peace, and life. Mahlasela used his songs to heal himself and his listeners, and became known as “The Voice” for his passionate, octave-leaping vocalization. Since then, he’s collaborated with Dave Matthews Band, Sting, Paul Simon, Taj Mahal and others.
Throughout their careers, both singers have composed songs recalling the history of resistance in South Africa. And though both had well known, anti-apartheid anthems — Mahlasela’s “When You Come Back” and Masekela’s “Bring Him Back Home” — this tour marks the first time the musicians have collaborated together onstage.
“We just want to come and celebrate everyone who helped us take apartheid down,” Mahlasela tells KQED.
The concert will feature some of the greatest hits from both artists (which they will play together), including “Stimela” and “Grazing in the Grass,” as well as a collection of South African music that the two grew up listening to — most likely including Miriam Makeba’s 1967 hit “Pata Pata,” which helped to popularize South African music and the injustices of apartheid to the rest of the world.
“We are just giving a kaleidoscope of South African songs from long before we were even musicians,” Masekela says. “It just so happens that South Africa was liberated from South Africa 20 years ago.”
Mahlasela says the South African music he grew up on covered topics like human desire, entitlement and language — or, as he puts it, “who you are [and] where you come from”. These songs, from the 1950s and ’60s, were also inherently political.
“What people don’t realize is that war against occupation in South Africa began when the first Dutch settlers came in 1652, and it didn’t stop till 1994,” Masekela says. “I don’t consider myself a political musician; I consider myself a person who learned music form people who were resisting an oppression.”
The 1984 anti-apartheid anthem “Bring Him Back Home” came in a flash to Masekela while he was reading a letter Nelson Mandela, a family friend, wrote from prison. Masekela was living in Botswana at the time, and “it just came to me at the time and I went to the piano and sang it,” he says. “It came complete.”
Mahlasela, on the other hand, was part of the Ancestors of Africa poetry group and the Congress of South African Writers. They supported each other’s creation of activist work preserving the heritage of native South Africans. His song “When You Come Back” pays homage to the country’s political fighters and exiles. The song celebrated life and offered hopefulness. The message is clear: “One day we will get apartheid down,” and “we deserve that date,” Mahlasela adds.
Mahlasela playing “When You Come Back” at Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday:
The duo’s show has special resonance in the Bay Area, an area with many allies in the fight to end apartheid. Eight years before the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 became Federal law, the city of San Francisco passed legislation in 1978 to divest in banks or corporations doing business with South Africa. Not long thereafter, Berkeley became the “epicenter of American anti-apartheid activity” following the 1985 anti-apartheid demonstrations where hundreds of Berkeley students urged the UC administration to divest in South Africa.
Twenty years ago, South Africa was in a peculiar situation — democracy had triumphed over the unjust apartheid government, Nelson Mandela was elected president, and the era of reconciliation was slowly beginning. Meanwhile, HIV/AIDS had reached pandemic proportions, and in a couple years, president Thabo Mbeki would deny the epidemic altogether.
But the message of this tour is a lot simpler than all that. South Africa obtained freedom from apartheid, and people in the United States stood in solidarity with black South Africans. For one night in Berkeley, it’s about this legacy of solidarity which Masekela and Mahlasela wish to celebrate, along with the rich music that inspired them to become the legends they are today.
Masekela playing at Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland – The African Concert’: