The range, clarity and sheer emotive drama of Vusi Mahlasela’s singing unfolded within the first few moments of a remarkable two-set performance last night at Berea College’s Phelps-Stokes Chapel. During the show-opening Ubuhle Bomhlaba, the famed South African artist and activist sang with in a sustained hum, an almost meditative conjuring of the celebratory spirits that seemed to be by his side for the duration of the performance. But as soon as the tune’s summery melody and Mahlasela’s angelic singing began to act like a lullaby, the vocals recoiled into a tense, muted but quite non-threatening growl. The lyrics were all sung in zulu, but the song’s proud and powerful attitude came through loud and joyously clear.
For the travelogue piece Say Africa, Mahlasela promoted the concept of Ubuntu, a sense of world awareness balanced by national pride. Like much of the repertoire, the song basked in sunny lyricism, the light but heartily rhythmic drive of a three-man rhythm section and a groove that sent a sizeable portion of the predominantly student audience into the aisles for dancing. More decisively propulsive songs like Woza, Miyela Africa and even the career-defining Mahlasela anthem When You Come Back furthered the crowd’s revelry.
Sure, it was wonderful to experience the almost combustible sense of joy within Mahlasela’s vocals and the sense of cultural identity that frames it. One of the show’s most moving moments, in fact, came during an introduction to Khululu Wethu when the singer described the cheers of an ‘80s-era crowd in South Africa that emerged when a portrait was circulated of the then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela, whose very image was banned during Apartheid. But the show’s most satisfying surprise came from the audience.
Late into the second set, around the time Mahlasela launched into Our Sand, one could look over at the clusters of dancers and witness diversity in effortless and beautiful motion. It wasn’t just blacks and white mingling. There were also youths, elders and students of Asian, Indian and rural American heritage.
It’s doubtful the lyrical content of the songs triggered their joy. But it’s a good bet Mahlasela’s musical might and intent did.