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One of the hardest things to learn as a musician is not only to recognize inspiration, but when to trust and follow it. Over a musically and so-cially 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. Bearing the influences of various music and voices from throughout the world, Guiding Star features guest appearances from Dave Matthews (Sower of Words), band leader and Allman Brothers guitarist Derek Trucks (Tib-idi 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 leg-endary 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. 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. After the end of Apartheid, Vusi performed at Nelson Mandela's inaugura-tion in 1994, and is now an ambassador to Mandela's 46664 Foundation, a campaign to help raise Global awareness of Aids/ HIV. 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. Later that year, Ameri-cans 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.).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.
Vusi Mahlasela was born in 1965 and grew up in the Mamelodi township outside Pretoria, South Africa. He assembled his first guitars from discarded cooking-oil cans with wire strings, but his talent was so overwhelming that the novelist Nadine Gordimer arranged for the boy's formal music education. By the 1980s, his unrelenting courage in the face of government oppression became a factor in the downfall of apartheid. Often described as a folk singer, his music is indeed deeply rooted in Zulu traditions like mbube (a cappella vocals) and mbaqanga (township pop), but there are also touches of jazz (the local variety and from the USA), reggae, and plenty of judiciously applied Western mainstream quotes. For album number six, his second for Dave Matthews's ATO label, the dulcet-voiced singer-activist has brought on an impressive roster of guest stars. Matthews himself appears on track seven, "Sower of Words," and bows gracefully to Mahlasela's vision, as do, each in their own turn, Jem, Derek Trucks, Xavier Rudd, and--not surprisingly--Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Despite the high-octane sitters-in, a preponderance of English-language lyrics, and slick production values, the bandleader's guitar and voice remain the central focus of the mix, and thus the project succeeds brilliantly. Hit pick: a raucously sloppy, engagingly silly cover of Miriam Makeba's "Pata Pata." --Christina Roden
Top customer reviews
I got this CD on preorder and had it in my mailbox the day it came out, I wrote the first review about 2 weeks later and now looking back about a year later I have to add to it. This CD is just a classic, it's an epic CD, it's amazing. I'm still playing this CD at least 3 times a week. I can't believe I actually considered giving it only 4 stars. "Jabula" is still my favorite song, but I also love "Ntombe Mbali" and "Mighty River" almost as much and with their organ sounding effects. I love all the songs on it really. I also had the pleasure of seeing Vusi live this summer, and if you ever get the chance, don't miss him, I drove 3 hours to see the show, I would have bought a plane ticket if I had to.
"Jabula" ranks up there close to "When You Come Back" as one of my favorite Vusi songs. He really got the South African sound in there, but I'm also really hearing a Celtic influence in the drumming, pretty amazing how he pulled it off, the best song I've heard released in 2007, and probably will remain that way. I also loved "Moleko" and it's rythm. "Chamber of Justice" is pretty cool, has a reggae sounding rhythm to it, definitely something you could throw into a either a reggae mix or African mix and it would fit right in with both.
Every song is masterfully crafted, Vusi and his guests are top notch performers. My only not 100% positive comment on this is that some of the songs get a little "Dave Mathewish" sounding, which is not a complaint, but I was hoping to hear more of the South African sound like I did on "Voice". While I gave it 5 stars, I was debating to give it 4 because of this, but I figured this was personal preference and shouldn't reflect the quality of the music which is well deserving of 5 stars.
Oh, and if you're interested in his first three albums, your best bet is amazon.co.uk. There's a box set called "The Collection" with the albums "When You Come Back," "The Wisdom of Forgiveness," and "Silang Mabele." As of this writing, the price is about $27.
The songs on this selection are a little more electronic and closer to popular music and I thought I wouldn't like it as much as "The Voice" which has a more intimate, acoustic feel to it. But I have to say I might even like Guiding Star better.