Music seems to be one of the last resources to which consumers of popular culture turn when attempting to examine the lives of people from different countries and backgrounds. Film and literature are often preferred mediums, as they have the ability to provide sweeping pictures, whether visually present on a screen or in the eye of the mind, making transportation to another world instantly available. With music, listeners have a tendency to gravitate towards artists they think represent them in their current state (the carefree country boy who listens to Kenny Chesney) or represent who they would like to become (the person who sees their potential for cool personified in a Julian Casablancas or Gwen Stefani). Yet, there is something inherently intimate and transparent about music that can allow for not only a glimpse into the life of someone with different circumstances, but can catalyze an immediate connection with the thoughts and emotions that make us all similar. If the right type of artist guides the song, these aspirations can be met.
Vusi Mahlasela is the right type of artist. On Guiding Star, the South African folk artist grants listeners continued access to an experience that, for many, will be diametrically opposite to their own. As one who has not only been present during, but very near to many landmark events in that country’s turbulent history, Mahlasela provides the chance to peer into the soul of a people whose journey has left them weary yet proud, realistic yet hopeful. This is not to say Mahlasela has fashioned himself as a spokesman, or that this album is meant as some sort of grand statement on the past, present, or future of his countrymen. However, Mahlasela expresses the spectrum of human emotions well, and as one who has experienced those emotions because or in spite of great turmoil and upheaval, it brings a fresh and important perspective to the listener.
‘Soulful’ is the most accurate and true word that can be used to describe Guiding Star. Though its 16 tracks vary in subject, style, and dynamic, each seems to be an unadulterated cry from Mahlasela’s soul. Each instrument, each melody, each rhythmic accent rings with a resonance that infuses the stories being told. Mahlasela tackles standard artistic themes like life, death, and love while looking at them through the lens of weightier, less easily summarized ideas: justice, redemption, perseverance, and eternal life.
The songs on Guiding Star are organic and imbued with a constant sense of motion. Many of the tracks begin similarly with a solitary, invigorating figure played on the guitar, before the arrangement expands to incorporate a variety of instruments which aid in exploring the groove first hinted at in the opening guitar passages. Most of the album is groove-oriented, though the sense of rhythmic momentum never overwhelms or dominates the album’s most compelling feature: the unique and powerful vocal performances turned in by Mahlasela and a host of background performers. The best songs on Guiding Star take flight because of these standout vocals. “Mighty River”, for example, is propelled by powerfully moving vocals by Mahlasela and a backing choir. These performances in concert with one another are emotionally stirring and an effective prayer performed to experience the cleansing effects of salvation.
Mahlasela excels and seems as equally comfortable on upbeat, percussive tracks (“Ntombi Mbali” and bonus track “Pata Pata” are album highlights) as he does on quieter, unadorned anthems such as “Everytime” and “River Jordan”, a song about his mother. Not every track completely hits the mark (the lyrics on “Song for Thandi”, while telling the powerful tale of freedom fighter Thandi Modise, are a bit over-reaching), but more often than not, when Mahlasela seeks to convey an emotion or explore a style, he matches his objectives with fitting melodic and rhythmic counterparts.
Another example of how Mahlasela fits musical pieces together is how the album benefits from the presence of an impressive and diverse list of guest musicians (which include Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Derek Trucks, Jem, Dave Matthews, and Australian multi-instrumentalist Xavier Rudd) that highlight the far-reaching respect Mahlasela has earned within the artistic community. None of these appearances seem an effort to gain a wider audience or an attempt to capitalize on the success of any “flavor of the month” artists. Each collaboration serves to enhance and further Mahlasela’s heartfelt form of expression rather than distract from it. There could easily be temptation to showcase the contribution of someone as commercially successful as Matthews in such a way as to maximize the marketing appeal of his guest spot. However, Matthews’ vocals on “Sower of Words” are unassuming, adding a simple depth to Mahlasela’s tribute to the late poet and writer Ingoapele Madingoane.
In the press material, Mahlasela is quoted as saying “I know that I have something that is like a borrowed fire from God. And I have to use it in a positive way.” At its best, when all the elements fall into place, Guiding Star is certainly a manifestation of that “borrowed fire.” Mahlasela’s positive use of his talents makes this one of the most inspirational albums of this young year, and displays a welcome way of expressing both the tragic and the triumphant.