One of the hardest things to learn as a musician is when to not only recognize inspiration, but when to trust and follow it. Over a musically and socially consequential career, South African singer-songwriter and poet-activist Vusi Mahlasela has successfully followed his muse. That trust in his gift is at the root of his latest album, Guiding Star.
Mahlasela wrote and recorded this album as he toured the globe. Its soul-stirring title is very much a product of the new friends he’s met and experiences he’s had touring. Bearing the influences of various music and voices from throughout the world, Guding Star features guest appearances from friend (and partial ATO Records label head) Dave Matthews (“Sower of Words”), band leader and Allman Brothers guitarist Derek Trucks (“Tibidi Waka”), Australian didgeridoo star Xavier Rudd (“Chamber of Justice”), singer-songwriter Jem (“Everytime”) and longtime friends and touring mates Ladysmith Black Mambazo (“Heaven In My Heart”). Mahlasela also drew on the talents of numerous South African guests, including the legendary “Black Moses” Ngwenya of the Soul Brothers, the children’s choir from the Agnes Chidi School in his home Township, Mamelodi, and the KCC Gospel, among many others.
Mahlasela, an accomplished guitarist, percussionist, composer, arranger, band leader and performer, has bridged generations at home and abroad. His sound is a hybrid of folk, world, blues and soul, one that connects South Africa’s Apartheid-scarred past with its promise for a better future. Over the past three years of heavy, world-wide touring and spreading his message, Mahlasela has remained true to his roots.
The bulk of Guiding Star was recorded on a farm in rural South Africa. Like any Vusi Mahlasela album, there are songs that connect him and the people of South Africa with both their past, present, and hopes for a better future: “Song for Thandi” tells the story of detained freedom fighter Thandi Modise, while the affecting “Sower of Words”—featuring Dave Matthews—is a lament for the late Black Consciousness poet and writer Ingoapele Madingoane, who wrote the influential poem “Africa My Beginning, Africa My Ending.”
“There’s a part on it where I needed a very strong voice to drive the message across, and Dave was the perfect voice,” Mahlasela says of the latter. “Dave adds passionate, rich vocals to this song, taking it to a new level.”
Born Vusi Sidney Mahlasela Ka Zwane in 1965 in Lady Selborne, South Africa, Mahlasela became enchanted by music at an early age, building his first guitar out of tin and fishing line. Reared in Mamelodi Township, a vibrant artist community where he still resides, he gravitated toward poetry and songwriting as a teen, eventually joining youth organizations protesting South Africa’s separatist, white government.
Reading poems at night vigils, funerals and anti-Apartheid marches triggered a long streak of police harassment. Local police soon began requiring that he keep them abreast of his whereabouts at all times, and his poems and songs were routinely confiscated—forcing him to memorize his work. It was a time when people like him would “just disappear indefinitely,” he recalls, or, in Mahlasela’s case, be held for periods of time. “Somehow you get some sort of courage. You look at what’s happening to your comrades, and you see that their struggle has to be testified—and you don’t have to be afraid.”
In 1988, he joined the Congress of South African Writers, developing a new level of confidence as a poet and a writer. He struck up a creative friendship with South African poet Lesego Rampolokeng (who joins Mahlasela and Dave Matthews on “Sower of Words”), while falling under the spell of artists like Miriam Makeba and Phillip Tabane and the work of Victor Jara— all central influences on Mahlasela’s music and lyrics.
Mahlasela never knew his father, finally locating him in 2000, sadly, six months after his death. When he was in his early 20s, his mother collapsed in church, dying the same day, just a year after she’d proudly held his first recording in her hands and wept. He wrote the new song “River Jordan” for her, and it was with her inspiration and the motivation of leaders like Nelson Mandela that Mahlasela crafter his official debut, 1991’s When You Come Back, produced by Lloyd Ross, who returns to the controls for Guiding Star.
After the end of Apartheid, Vusi performed at Mandela’s inauguration in 1994, and is now an ambassador to Mandela’s 46664 Foundation, a campaign to help raise Global awareness of Aids/ HIV. Mahlasela proudly promotes Mandela’s message at all of his performances. Having released a string of albums in South Africa, it wasn’t until the debut in 2003 of the documentary film Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, a film that charts South Africans’ longtime struggle for racial equality, that Americans first glimpsed and heard Mahlasela. In a rave Los Angeles Times review, noted critic Robert Hilburn wrote: “Vusi Mahlasela’s voice is so pure and commanding; you wonder whether you should have gotten an entire album by him.”
Later that year, Americans did, with The Voice, a collection of the best songs from his catalog, all released for the first time in U.S. via the ATO Records label (co-owned by longtime fan and fellow South African Dave Matthews, who calls Mahlasela “one of the most important influences of my life.). It was an album so chock full of beauty, soul and struggle that it had a profound effect on American listeners in the wake of 9/11—even though much of the album wasn’t sung in English.
And that’s a power that Mahlasela doesn’t take lightly. A single listen to Guiding Star, is all one needs to be assured that Mahlasela is a gifted performer. And with that gift comes responsibility, says Vusi: “I know that I have something that is like a borrowed fire from God. And I have to use it in a very positive way.”