Born Vusi Sidney Mahlasela Ka Zwane in 1965 in Lady Selborne, South Africa,
Mahlasela became enchanted with 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 and
eventually joined youth organizations protesting South Africa's apartheid
Reading poems at night vigils, funerals and anti-Apartheid marches triggered a long
streak of police harassment. Local police soon required 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 in prison
for extended periods of time.
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, 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.
He wrote the song River Jordan for his mother, 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.
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
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.'