Mahlasela (above) and Masekela (next photo) connected the world with South Africa's resistance.
It's been 20 years since South Africans threw off the yoke of apartheid. Throughout that struggle South African musicians played a vital role, galvanizing activists worldwide against the country's racist and oppressive system. But few delivered freedom songs with as much clarity and joy as living legends Hugh Masekela and Vusi Mahlasela.
During the widespread anti-apartheid divestment movement -- which included the building of a shantytown in 1986 on the lawn of the Wisconsin state Capitol -- the joyous music of Masekela's "Bring Home Nelson Mandela" connected protesters to the struggle taking place thousands of miles away. Masekela's career as a trumpeter, flugelhorn player, vocalist, composer and bandleader has spanned a half century.
Mahlasela, who witnessed and sang about the tragic Soweto Uprising, was imprisoned for writing songs about freedom. His music became so intrinsically tied to the struggle to end apartheid he became known as "The Voice" and performed at Nelson Mandela's historic 1994 inauguration.
On Friday, March 6, the two greats will join a full band for a celebration of the music of the anti-apartheid movement in a concert called "20 Years of Freedom" at Shannon Hall in the Wisconsin Union Theater.
Isthmus spoke briefly to Masekela about the "20 Years of Freedom" concert while the band was en route from Washington, D.C., to Princeton, N.J. Masekela says he cannot remember becoming a musician. "I was invaded by music as an infant," he says, beginning piano at age 5 and trumpet at 14. "I wasn't inspired by anything. I found myself deep inside music when I was a child."
Masekela says he and Mahlasela are touring together because of their shared experience. "We are both very much children of the townships, and it is fantastic to play together because the audiences love the music," he says. "We are singing songs from our infancy. They all have something to do with South Africa now and before. Some are songs of joy, but they all have to do with our lives as South African children."
Although South Africa's music has long been associated with resistance, Masekela says his country's music also draws from musical traditions that developed in the United States. "Music has always been a fantastic element in people's solidarity," says Masekela. "African American people to a very great extent survived slavery and other craziness because of the music that bonded them together. Music led to liberation and international respect."
Despite his half century of performing music with a social justice message, Masekela says he doesn't believe musicians have a special responsibility in times of social upheaval. "Musicians have a rough enough time trying to make a living," he says. "That they are expected to play a role in times of struggle to me is a joke, because it's everybody's role."
He and Mahlasela, he says, are part of a "handful of musicians" compelled to become political because of circumstances. "They are socially conscious because they grow up in rallies and protests, and they come from a population that resists injustice."
Although South Africa's democracy is still plagued by inequality, 20 years without apartheid is worth celebrating, says Masekela: "We're going to have a great time. They should bring their dancing shoes."