Pretoria-born Vusi Mahlasela’s ninth release marks the 20th anniversary of the South African activist-singer’s debut, When You Come Back, whose reconciliatory title track (also a popular 2010 World Cup anthem) continues to inspire the masses. Apartheid only began to end in 1994, but enough of its residue remains to make Mahlasela’s folky freedom songs continue to resonate today — hence the rowdy enthusiasm of his Johannesburg audience.
Singing in English, Sotho, Swahili and other languages, Mahlasela covers a lot of turf: “Our Sand” voices support for resettled Kalahari bushmen experiencing the “ghostly shadows of a vanished world,” while “Say Africa” claims a more global system of “UN loans and passport controls” is oppressing the modern African. Mahlasela’s wonderful voice turns sweet, strong or grainy depending on context. He scats intensely in “Ubuhle Bomhlaba,” evokes a dove’s summer celebration with a mbaqanga Zulu groove in “Amdokwe,” and swings hard in “Tswang Tswang Tswang.” The show’s highlight, unsurprisingly, is “When You Come Back,” which begins as an a cappella lament and evolves into a hard-jiving anthem. Go ahead and dance now, Mahlasela appears to imply; the struggle remains the same.