Mahlasela serves as South Africa’s guiding star |

Mahlasela serves as South Africa’s guiding star

Joel Stonington
South African singer-poet Vusi Mahlasela appears this week in the Aspen Writers' Foundation's Lyrically Speaking series at Belly Up. (Aaron Farrington)

Vusi Mahlasela made his first musical instrument himself, a guitar out of a cooking-oil can and fishing wire. “It was more of a toy,” said Mahlasela, speaking by phone from his home in South Africa. “It was for the love of music, but it was more of toy. It was still a joyful noise.”A self-taught musician and poet, Mahlasela was a voice of the revolution against apartheid in South Africa during the 1980s; he was one of many artists who protested. As apartheid fell, his music spread beyond the borders of his country and out to a worldwide audience.

And in the past five years, Mahlasela’s blend of folk, traditional African sounds, blues and soul has captured heightened attention; he’s even teamed up with the likes of Dave Matthews and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.Mahlasela performs on Tuesday, Aug. 8 at Belly Up as part of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation Lyrically Speaking series, where he will play a set and speak about his music. (The series will also bring David Crosby – a founding member of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash – to Belly Up on Aug. 16.)Born Vusi Sidnes Mahlasela Ka Zwane in 1965, Mahlasela grew up in the Mamelodi Township, where he currently lives with his wife and three children. As a teenager, Mahlasela began writing poetry and songs as a way to protest South Africa’s apartheid government. Police harassment at the time made it so that he had to stop writing poems, he had to memorize them so he would not be arrested. “I started performing on political platforms, it gave me more reason to go on,” Mahlasela said. “When the apartheid was there, we wanted the outside world to know what was happening and also give ourselves hope as well.”Soon after apartheid ended, Mahlasela performed at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration and became a spokesman for Mandela’s 46664 Foundation. The foundation, named for Mandela’s prison number, raises money and awareness for AIDS/HIV in Africa.

“You can never say no to a man like him,” Mahlasela said. “It is really a great responsibility.”Mahlasela talks of music as one of the great equalizers, a way to bring people together in a global community. He speaks about the HIV crisis as easily and simply as he talks of South Africa’s fragile democracy and strong culture. “I haven’t come across somebody who says they don’t like music,” Mahlasela said. “You can never really do without it. We are now integrating globally. I think it won’t be a problem because people can listen to different types of music with different types of language to feel together.”Mahlasela sings in six different languages, including English, in his U.S. debut, “The Voice.” That album came out following a film, “Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony,” that served as his introduction to American audiences. Before the film, few had heard of Mahlasela. His latest release, “Guiding Star,” came out this year and features tracks where he is accompanied by Dave Matthews, Xavier Rudd and others.

“It’s more than just an album in terms of the people who contributed,” Mahlasela said. “There are some very important artists who put more soul into the album. The album was supposed to be more of an acoustic album but I also had no choice with the direction it took. One journalist called it the music to kick-start the revolution.”The album will be released in the U.K. soon after Mahlasela performs in Aspen. There, he will join Ladysmith Black Mambazo for a two-month tour. For Mahlasela, the music always seems to go back to solving problems and creating meaning, far more than just going on tour. “There is a lot of change taking place all of the time, good change,” Mahlasela said. “Sometimes your music just comes, the song comes to you, you have to respect them. When it comes, I become so happy.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is