SOUTH AFRICA: When You Come Back - Vusi Mahlasela
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
Joyous and melancholy, hopeful and cautious, Mahlasela's masterful lyrical and musical ability make for an especially wonderful album
Music has an uncanny ability to evoke an emotion, and the emotion I associate with Vusi Mahlasela’s excellent 1992 album When You Come Back is hope. Through Mahlasela’s beautiful singing, guitar-playing and lyrics I feel a deep and profound hope being conveyed. Sometimes it’s joyous, and sometimes it’s deeply moving and sad, but the hopefulness remains steadfast, regardless of whatever emotions his music is evoking. On some level, it is the music and lyrics which do this, and we’ll get into that soon enough, but it’s also in the very sound of Mahlasela’s voice, which is light and lilting. Vusi Mahlasela, as a black man living in South Africa under the brutal repression and cruelty of the Apartheid regime (against which he was a fervent and dedicated activist), would have had all the reason in the world to write pessimistic music, but this collection of twelve songs are about as beautifully optimistic as you could imagine, with the return of African culture to South Africa a recurrent theme throughout the album.
“It’s a stunningly beautiful and poignant tribute to his homeland, the struggle for freedom and against Apartheid, and above all to the power of hope, and how hope for a better tomorrow can sustain one even in the darkest of times.”
1992 must have been an interesting time in South Africa. Apartheid was formally abolished the year before, and Nelson Mandela had been released from prison the year before that, but there was still a long way to go, with negotiations about what the state would look like in the future still ongoing, and the multiracial democracy we know today was as yet still unestablished. It is into this uncertain political state that the album was released, and with that in mind, this album’s peculiarly effective mix of sadness and happiness, optimism and cautiousness, fits the time in which it was released. In his native South Africa, Mahlasela is known as “The Voice”, and after listening to this, I can understand why. Mahlasela has a delicate, gentle, high-pitched voice that has a tremendously poignant tone to it at times. His lyrics are poetic, expressive, and elegant – he writes like he only has a limited amount of words to fit into the song, and thus every word must count. But more than just this, he was able to capture the mood of the time perfectly, and his mix of folk stylings and traditional African modes of music create something uniquely South African.
The whole album is worth your time, but there are two songs that symbolise this hopefulness in Mahlasela’s music perfectly, and they are the title track and Red Song. When You Come Back is particularly pertinent here. Mahlasela begins with a section that is spoken word, so your attention is fully on his words. He sings about “the unknown grave”, where “the one who died maintaining his might/his will being so strong and musically inclined”, effectively mourning the loss of life and culture of black South Africa that occurred under colonisation and Apartheid. Yet, despite this symbolic figure’s “sad melodies coming out like smoke from the wood fire”, Mahlasela provides us with hope.
And he sang Mayibuye iAfrica, sing now Africa Sing loud, sing to the people Let them give something to the world and not just take from it
Now, the song takes a different, more joyous tone, as through this figure of South Africa’s history of oppression and sorrow, there is a message of hope, and it is on this message of hope that Mahlasela dwells on, both lyrically and musically. Mayibuye iAfrica is a slogan made famous by the African National Congress meaning “come back, Africa” a rallying cry for justice, self-determination and freedom, and now the music kicks in, building up from a single acoustic guitar, then adding drums, bass, and eventually a full band. Though not really a part of the album, I would be remiss not to mention the fact that during live performances (in particular his performance at the Mandela Day concert in 2009, available on YouTube) he often extends this spoken word section to make this interpretation of the loss of beliefs and culture even more concrete.
As the song goes on, he sings “we’ll ring the bells when you come back/ we’ll beat the drums when you come back home”, effectively heralding the return of what he terms “our lost African music”. It’s the precision of the words that provides the hope, alongside the inspiring and soaring music. When you come back, not if. It’s a deeply moving expression of hope and happiness, but one tinged with a sadness, and it’s this complex emotion that defines this album. Mahlasela is pointing out the jubilation to be found in an aspiration to a better future, but in doing so one must also remember the sadness of the past.
Red Song approaches the subject of hope in a different way, effectively asking the question what use is hopeful, joyous music in sad times. Mahlasela answers it through the song itself, creating a transcendently happy song that is born out of troubled times. The song is a statement about Mahlasela’s music itself, in which he steadfastly rejects the notion that love songs lose their necessity in tough times, they in fact grow in relevance. But this is no South African version of Paul McCartney’s Silly Love Songs, it remains powerful and potent, with lyrics that are full of meaning, such as “armed struggle is an act of love”. This phrase opens the song, which references the necessity of resistance against the Apartheid regime, and sets the tone for what is to come. If armed struggle is an act of love, then why can’t his love songs be an act of resistance? Mahlasela continues.
Sister, why oh why do we at times mistake a pimple for a cancer? So who are they who say no more love poems now? I want to sing my song of love For that woman who jumped fences pregnant and gave birth to a healthy child
Here we can see that Mahlasela is not defending his choice to sing his “song of love” merely to celebrate love itself, but to exalt the struggles of ordinary people overcoming the odds simply to live, to raise a child, to use his example. For Mahlasela, this is his purpose, to sing songs of protest that get across the extraordinary spirit of those he sees around him. Again, his decision to talk about a child in this context is significant, as it links back to the title track in having optimism for the future. In effect, Mahlasela is singing these ‘protest love songs’ as a reminder that there is goodness in the world, there is hope despite the evil. For him, the “persistent voice [is] more powerful than the enemy bombs”.
Though those two songs remain my two favourites on the album, there’s plenty of other brilliant songs. As a whole piece, Vusi Mahlasela makes the album feel like one coherent piece of music, as although there is variety in the moods and sounds of each song, they work together. Manana and Tonkana are two of songs where he sings mostly or entirely in a native African language (he is renowned for singing in many different languages, including English, Zulu, Sotho and Tswana) and yet the meaning is still crystal clear. The hope is once again present in the very tone of his voice. In Solitary Confinement is another song that exemplifies this idea of hope being intrinsic to the struggle. It starts off with a cheery pennywhistle riff, as a whole it sounds joyful and beautiful, but he’s talking about his own experiences in solitary confinement while protesting Apartheid. It’s a protest song, but it doesn’t sound like one.
Overall, I can’t sing high enough praises of this excellent album. I could sit here and wax lyrical about each and every one of these songs, as there really isn’t a duff song in the bunch, not one that could be termed filler or unnecessary. It’s a stunningly beautiful and poignant tribute to his homeland, the struggle for freedom and against Apartheid, and above all to the power of hope, and how hope for a better tomorrow can sustain one even in the darkest of times. It was created in response to a specific time in his nation’s history, but Vusi Mahlasela’s brilliance was to create an album that resonates so strongly on an emotional level, that anyone can enjoy it.