really, really wanted to like this record. This was supposed to be Vusi Mahlasela’s shot at an American audience, trampolining off his appearance in the Amandla! documentary and soundtrack, the Tsotsi soundtrack, and guest slots on the recent DMB comp, and the (ahem) Josh Groban album.
The EPK is stuffed with baloney about music being “the only way to get the regime to listen to us” (strikes, demonstrations, township rebellion, anyone?), “the only thing that gave us courage,” and references to Mahlasela’s “homemade guitar.” (OK, that last bit perhaps isn’t baloney, but doesn’t it seem to be baiting the exoticists?)
The album all but suffocates under the flawed logic of hyperlinked crossover-appeal, an object lesson in synergistic how-not-to. The guests, though well chosen, are a mixed blessing; Ladysmith Black Mambazo, for example, is reduced to a thoroughly forgettable brand-name background choir on “Heaven in My Heart.” Even Ben Harper did a better job of engaging with Ladysmith’s extraordinary rhythmic, harmonic, and textural gifts, and he’s from California. Mahlasela even allows himself to be outshone on the guitar by some fluid acoustic slide work by Derek Trucks, a completely unnecessary eventuality given Mahlasela’s own distinctive guitar style. And a collaboration with Jem is just a fucking horrible idea. And that’s not even touching on the dire peril of Rian bloody Malan’s co-writing credits.
I should probably explain some of the vehemence above.
My first real listen to Mahlasela—you know what they say about first impressions—was the excellent 1999 album Vusi and Louis Live at the Bassline, featuring just Mahlasela and the Zimbabwean guitarist Louis Mhlanga, with that wonderful Jozi voice introducing them as the record opens (“This is gonna be awesome, you’re in for a treat!”). The two guitars are nimble and densely-woven, Mahlasela’s burred tenor exhibiting its forthright fragility, backed by Mhlanga’s self-effacing harmonies. It’s a modest album, and near perfect.
So I may be prejudiced against the kitchen-sink approach of Guiding Star. This should be his record, but somehow never quite fulfils that promise, and not just because of the clutter of guest stars both A-list and otherwise. (But enough being rude about Jem. Is there any texture at all to her voice? Is that the attraction? Enough.) Some of the blame certainly falls on Mahlasela’s cowriters. Mahlasela’s music trades on an appealing naiveté, both in his lyrics and the choked-back, sobbing countertenor that marks the peaks of his songs. But much of Guiding Star leans on this wide-eyed-wonder character just too damn hard.
The worst offender may be Rian Malan, who gets co-writing credit on three songs. His lyrics are nearly as simple minded as his appraisal of the HIV epidemic (roughly: population growth > AIDS deaths = not really a problem). Mahlasela struggles his way through scads of self-important, vague mixed-metaphors of love—“Are you ready now? / So don’t turn away / Or make me explain how the wind turns to steel / Cold, hard and blue / When I’m away from you” (“Everytime”) or justice—“A place where every omen warns / Of the coming counter-storm / But still the gluttons gorge / Dull and swinish eyes / Ignoring the rising tide” (“Chamber of Justice”). Hopefully the Zulu and Xhosa lyrics breathe easier.
But Mahlasela brings much of it on himself. “Thula Mama” depends on a slight scat-sung refrain that’s cute the first time through, but too many rhetorical questions about the downtrodden status and it ends up sounding coy, even smarmy, like a musical about the 1950s. “Song for Thandi” relates the horrifying torture experience of Thandi Modise, but the lyrics can’t bridge the imaginative gulf from the listener to a pregnant woman on the point of shooting herself at her captors’ urging. “She picked up the gun / Metal was cool against her head / She told herself I’m better off dead / When suddenly / She felt her baby kicking inside / And it felt good to be alive / She started to sing…” Wisely, the song abandons words and lets Mahlasela’s keening voice, framed by a plaintive string arrangement, carry the song to its unsettling conclusion.
Guiding Star isn’t all bad. It is mostly well-produced—ATO have brought their A-game as well as their guest-list—and Mahlasela’s guitar is preternaturally clean-toned and bright. The songs cover a range of genres, touching all the bases in an effort to hit a home run. It has all the mixed blessings of good dinner music. Is it unfair to wish that someone as abundantly talented as Mahlasela produce something more?