The Order of Ikhamanga in
Profile of Vusi Sidney Mahlasela Ka Zwane
Vusi Sidney Mahlasela Ka Zwane has a gift to use music to touch people’s hearts and elevate their souls. Born in Lady Selbourne, Pretoria in 1965, Mahlasela grew up in Mamelodi, a township famed as a cradle of culture that has produced many of South Africa’s greatest black musicians and writers.
Mahlasela cannot remember a time when he wasn’t singing as a child. His musical influences are deeply rooted in the tradition of ‘ingomabusuku’ or songs of the night, which he listened to as child in his grandmother’s shebeen. Mahlasela taught himself to play guitar on a home-made instrument made of tin cans, wooden planks and fishing line.
He started taking formal guitar lessons in high school, where he also formed his own vocal group. His teachers marvelled at his amazing vocal range that enabled him to continue singing soprano parts in school productions well into his teens. By the age of 17, Mahlasela was a seasoned performer.
When he became tired of singing cover versions of popular songs, he started writing his own music. Mahlasela also used his talent to sing about the social and political injustices of the time and became an artist in demand at political rallies and cultural events. He joined a group of revolutionary artists formed in 1981, known as the Ancestors of Africa consisting of poets, musicians and actors. The group was often harassed by the police because of their resistance to apartheid.
It was after joining the Congress of South African Writers in 1988, that Mahlasela developed a new level of confidence as a poet and a writer. He came into contact with other artists and poets who were to influence him greatly. He drew inspiration from a creative friendship with poet Lesego Rampolokeng, as well as from the jazz and traditional music performed by artists such as Miriam Makeba and Phillip Tabane. He was also exposed to the work of Victor Jara, whom Mahlasela acknowledges as having had perhaps the strongest influence on his music and lyrics.
Mahlasela’s became internationally known in 1990 when he played at the Zabalaza Festival in London. He dedicated his debut album When You Come Back to those who had sacrificed their lives to the solitude and suffering of political exile. His album, which won him many local and international fans, was the beginning of Mahlasela’s journey to become a South African classic who continues to entertain and inspire music lovers the world over.
He was nominated in the categories for Best South African Artist, as well as Best Music Video at the 1996 KORA All Africa Music Awards. In 1998, Mahlasela received the FNB SAMA Award for Best Male Vocalist and Best Album (Silang Mabele). In 2012, the SAMA Awards honoured Mahlasela with a Lifetime Achievement Award.