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Vusi Mahlasela: 'The Voice' on spreading African spirit through song

From Jessica Ellis, CNN
May 9, 2012 -- Updated 1016 GMT (1816 HKT)
  • With over 20 years experience, Vusi Mahlasela is one of Africa's most lauded singers
  • Through his international success, he focuses on spreading African philosophy, Ubuntu
  • He has established a foundation nurturing young African talent and providing music lessons

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(CNN) -- He is lauded as one of Africa's most unique voices, with a fanbase stretching across the world, but South African singing sensation Vusi Mahlasela remains faithful to his roots.

For more than 20 years, the legendary singer has been celebrated globally for his powerful vocals and universal messages of freedom and human kindness. He has toured the world extensively and collaborated with major music stars such as Sting, Paul Simon and Dave Matthews.

But despite all his success and international acclaim, Mahlasela still resides in Mamelodi, the small township northeast of Pretoria where he grew up and nurtured his passion and talent for music.

He says it all started for him here.

"Quite a lot of inspirations and also some of the songs that I wrote, I penned them here in Mamelodi," says Mahlasela, who is known in South Africa as "The Voice." "I still have very strong connections with this place," he adds. "I feel rooted and connected to this place, I love it."

A humble star, Mahlaselaʼs roots are reflected in his songs and lyrics, many written during one of the toughest times in South Africaʼs history -- the fight against apartheid.

Vusi Mahlasela with artists including Joss Stone and Angelique Kidjo at the 2007 Live Earth press conference in South Africa.
Vusi Mahlasela with artists including Joss Stone and Angelique Kidjo at the 2007 Live Earth press conference in South Africa.

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Perhaps his most famous song, "When You Come Back," has become an anthem in the country, celebrating the return of those who escaped apartheid and lived in exile.

Mahlasela says the song's hopeful lyrics, written years before South Africaʼs democratic change, were also for those arrested, like former South African president Nelson Mandela -- not surprisingly, Mahlasela was asked in 1994 to perform at Mandelaʼs inauguration.

With Dave Stewart, Cyndi Lauper, Angelique Kidjo, Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Baaba Maal and Jesse Clegg during the Mandela Day concert.
With Dave Stewart, Cyndi Lauper, Angelique Kidjo, Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Baaba Maal and Jesse Clegg during the Mandela Day concert.

Passionate about spreading the traditional African philosophy, Ubuntu, many of Mahlaselaʼs global tours throughout his career have been benefit concerts. He has also become an ambassador to the 46664 foundation -- named after Mandelaʼs prison number and dedicated to raising awareness about HIV/AIDS.

"That spirit of collective good, it's still in the principle of ubuntu," he says. "Everyday kindness, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, so everything about us that makes us human."

[The foundation provides] music lessons, but also to develop even those who are playing already and we do have outreach programs for primary schools.
Vusi Mahlasela

Honoring a career that spans 20 years and 10 albums, Mahlasela was recently given a lifetime achievement award in South Africa.

Watch: Vusi Mahlasela's creative process

The singer is now focusing on helping younger generations, supporting Africaʼs future generation of musicians and songwriters through the foundation he created in 2000.

"It is to give music lessons, but also to develop even those who are playing already and we do have outreach programs for primary schools," says Mahlasela.

"They're trying to encourage the schools and the governments to give lessons to the young ones and to encourage also the musicians or the students to start picking up folk, indigenous, traditional instruments, because it's something that they really have to be proud of and to infuse them with Western instruments."

On stage, Ubuntu shines through. Mahlaselaʼs distinctive vocals blend in wonderfully with his enchanting music, taking the listeners on an emotional journey.

"My music is sort of more accessible to every listener, young and old, they love my music," he says.

"And I've seen it also happen that I have also gotten that energy back from the people -- performing and after that when I'm going out there to sign CDs people will come to me with quite a lot of different great compliments, so it gives me the pleasurable feeling that I can really give something to the people and that will really change their lives to the better."

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