Twenty Years of Freedom: A South African Musical Celebration @ Lisner Auditorium, Washington, DC

Legends: Hugh Masekela and Vusi Mahlasela|Photo Credit - Dana Yavin

Legends: Hugh Masekela and Vusi Mahlasela|Photo Credit – Dana Yavin

“Freedom Fighter.” “Political Prisoner.” “Statesman.” These are the words engraved on one of Washington, D.C.’s newest memorial statues—of Nelson Mandela—in front of the South African Embassy.

Three simple titles conceal a lifetime of struggle and oppression in South Africa, a complex story that will be told through uplifting music in a special concert coming to George Washington University’s’s Lisner Auditorium.

The “Twenty Years of Freedom” tour is a grand culmination of the careers of two major South African musical luminaries, Hugh Masekela and Vusi Mahlasela. The two men crossed paths while providing some of the musical inspiration for the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, and both were present at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela in 1994. The new South Africa just celebrated its 20th anniversary, inspiring both this tour and the new Mandela statue.

This tour was birthed from an organic collaboration between the two artists at Carnegie Hall in New York City last fall. Mahlasela explains, “Hugh and I have been sharing the stage together here and there but never done a full tour together. We started brainstorming ideas and decided to honor the music of our country and the struggle.” The purpose of this tour is simple, he says: “We want to share these songs that are so special to us and were so special to the anti-apartheid movement.”

If you want to be deeply impressed, take a few minutes to examine the accomplishments and credentials of these two musicians. To begin with, Masekela’s career spans nearly 60 years with stints in London and New York, as well as his native South Africa. Masekela is a vocalist who plays trumpet, cornet, and flugelhorn, and has collaborated with the likes of Paul Simon, Harry Belafonte, and Miriam Makeba. Part of a newer generation of South African musicians, Mahlasela has worked with Warren Haynes, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Bela Fleck. Both men have worked closely with fellow South African Dave Matthews, and Mahlasela is signed to his ATO Records imprint.

“Amandla means power— it’s a Xhosa word and we used it as a rallying cry during the struggle. It’s a theme that runs throughout many of the songs,” says Mahlasela who is known as “The Voice” of South Africa. He goes on to say that they will be singing in Zulu, Xhosa, and English at the show, and the listener will walk away with an understanding of Amandla. Listening to the music is only half of this concert experience; “you’ll feel it!” Mahlasela promises.

South Africa has undergone rapid social change over the past twenty years since the election of Mandela, and both of these artists are committed to nurturing positive growth in their homeland. The tour is a celebration of freedom, life, and culture, but there’s an underlying agenda to keep the momentum going. As Mahlasela puts it, “we’ve made a lot of progress in race relations but the feeling of separation very much remains and we have a long, long way to go. As a country, we really need to strengthen our education system and [overcome] poverty, which is rampant throughout our country.”

Community organizers and activists around the world can learn a lot from the way South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement embraced music and used it as a tool for social change. “Music is a beautiful and peaceful way to express one’s self— and to prevent unnecessary violence,” says Mahlasela. “For me, it was my natural way to express myself and for many others, as well. Music brings people together. I think music could help us all avoid a lot of unnecessary unrest in the world.”

Masekela and Mahlasela look forward to performing at Lisner Auditorium, saying that “We always love playing D.C. because of the international flare and connections. The message for our fans is Ubuntu, which I always define at the shows, but it’s an all-encompassing term meaning “I am because you are.” It encompasses love, compassion, empathy, beauty, forgiveness.” And when asked what should fans expect at the show, Mahlasela says “lots of dancing. Get ready to dance!”

Hugh Masekela and Vusi Mahlasela play at GWU’s Lisner Auditorium at 8 p.m. on Sunday, February 22nd. Tickets are $30-$45.

Source: Andy Cerutti|

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