Vusi Mahlasela: Guiding Star

Though its 16 tracks vary in subject, style, and dynamic, each seems to be an unadulterated cry from Mahlasela's soul.

Vusi Mahlasela

Guiding Star

Label: ATO
US Release Date: 2007-03-06
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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