Music And Mandela: Vusi Mahlasela Remembers

South African musician Vusi Mahlasela's work was born out of the struggle against apartheid. His song "When You Come Back" was performed at Mandela's 1994 inauguration and was written to the political exiles who escaped South Africa. Mahlasela shares his memories with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR news. We are continuing with our look at the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, the South African leader died yesterday at 95 years old. Coming up, South Africa's ambassador to the U.S., Ebrahim Rasool, was also jailed as a young man for his political work. In a few minutes, he will tell us about a fateful meeting he had with Nelson Mandela when they were both in prison.

And he'll tell us what he learned from him. That's in just a few minutes. But first, music - it was an important part of the struggle against apartheid. So now we're going to hear from one of South Africa's best-known musicians. During the apartheid years, Vusi Mahlasela, was moved to write songs about justice and freedom. His anthem "When You Come Back" was written for political exiles who had to leave South Africa. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN YOU COME BACK")

MARTIN: He performed the song at Nelson Mandela's inauguration in 1994 and at tribute concerts around the world over the years. He joins me now from Mamelodi, Township in Pretoria. Vusi Mahlasela, welcome to the program. Thank you so much for joining us, and my condolences to you on your loss today.

VUSI MAHLASELA: Thank you. And thank you for having me, Michel, on the program. Thank you.

MARTIN: You performed for Nelson Mandela on a number of occasions. Do you mind if I ask what that meant to you?

MAHLASELA: Well, yeah, it was really quite emotional. And I think it was, you know, such a great honor to be part of that, you know, to see the way Nelson Mandela was. Some other times, other members performing had (unintelligible) Mandela came out and just walked on stage and started greeting us while we were playing. The drummer could not play with one hand (unintelligible). But also, (unintelligible) would also mission building and so on. So yeah, it's been such a really great honor and gave me the pleasure of the human feeling to be part of the movement.

MARTIN: And speaking of pleasure, when we've seen him on many public occasions, particularly where music is being played, he seems to - he seemed to really enjoy it, I mean, he seemed to really express on his face and in his body a real sense of appreciation. Was it really that way up close and with him? Did he love it?

MAHLASELA: Oh, yes. And you can actually see some kind of a transformation, you know, in his face when he sort of, like, was really listening to the music. You know, the passion that he had (unintelligible). And then he liked also to go out - not just listen - but he would go up to the musicians and shake their hands, you know, one by one. And he would really appreciate the music quite a lot. And, you know, he really not only transformed music and all that, but education and other things, American and others, so he really encouraged other people as well.

MARTIN: What kind of music did he like? Do you know? Did he ever have any particular opinions that he expressed to you? He says, oh, I like this song, or, eh, I didn't like that one?

MAHLASELA: I wouldn't say because of (unintelligible) he had heard a lot of music long before I was born. And then he had his favorites, the late Mama Africa, Miriam Makeba. And, (unintelligible) you know, a black model queen who was also from Pretoria (unintelligible). And African jazz pioneers, I mean, maybe other (unintelligible). And many others. I think he enjoyed quite a lot of music and I think also jazz in general as well.

MARTIN: He liked jazz? Really? He liked jazz.

MAHLASELA: Oh yes. I think he was cross-cultural and, you know (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Well, if I may, you know, sometimes people of earlier generation don't have as much appreciation for some of the later musical forms like hip-hop or rap. I don't know how you feel about those, but did he ever express any opinion about those things? Those new ones, a little bit new sound?

MAHLASELA: Well, I think there is quite a lot of, you know, development in terms of what is really happening today in music and all that, in this digital world and all that. I don't have a problem, you know, with (unintelligible) I know what I like. I know where my (unintelligible) in terms of what I like. As far as the music in terms of the lyric content, it's not (unintelligible). Either the rap and all that because rap also started here in Africa.

We we were talking about embracing, you know, the environment, the places where our ancestors, (unintelligible) and all that. But also about the people. The folk, you know, the conditional music with indigenous (unintelligible) rhythm of the bass and the importance on that, that is OK, you know (unintelligible). But as long as it's not just lyrics and everything like that, the subject matter is very much important. If only you can embody the, you know, what we're dealing with, those people need to hear it.

MARTIN: Well, thank you so much. Vusi Mahlasela is a South African musician. He performed many times for Nelson Mandela and we caught up with him in Mamelodi, Township in Pretoria, South Africa. Vusi Mahlasela, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MAHLASELA: Thank you very much, Michel, and thank you. Thank you for having me.

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