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World Music Features

Vusi Mahlasela

By Wes Orshoski
Published March 9, 2007

If apartheid broke apart the different cultures and tribes of South Africa, Mahlasela’s music has unified them, blending many of the country’s 11 official (and some unofficial) dialects into his songs. He himself speaks 17 languages. “It’s important,” says Mahlasela, “for the youth to know what we went through, so that won’t happen again.”

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Inside a cozy, rose-walled Soho studio, slide guitar phenomenon Derek Trucks is staring at the floor, lost in thought. Bleeding out of his headphones are the hymn-like vocals of South African singer-activist Vusi Mahlasela. A Martin acoustic guitar on his knee, Trucks is studying the track, picking spots where he’s going to add fills. Having just finished an uptown solo gig, the ever-busy, youngest member of the Allman Brothers Band is watching the clock. He’s switched around his schedule to be here in this anonymous West Side studio tonight, adding a few licks to his friend Vusi’s forthcoming album. But Mahlasela is nowhere to be found.

About three hours earlier, Manhattan’s first thunderstorm of summer started jamming up tarmacs at area airports, and with sheets of rain continuing to blanket Gotham, Vusi’s flight from Seattle has just landed. With the other members of the Derek Trucks Band waiting for their leader in a bus across town, the ponytailed guitarist, after two listens, decides to go ahead and start cutting takes for a song subtitled—appropriately—“The Rain Queen.”

Gracefully swooping up and down the neck of his guitar, his finger sheathed by a glass slide, Trucks is midway through his third take when Mahlasela arrives. In this dark, dimly lit room, Mahlasela enters like the sunrise. A bit tired and a little frazzled, he’s beaming nonetheless, and his smile completely lights up the room. But it’s not just his smile. There’s a radiant aura to him, a warmth.

“How goes it?” he says, happy to not only have arrived in time, but pleased to see recent tourmate Trucks, who grins back: “One more and I think we’ll have it.” In boat sneakers, cargo pants and one of his own tour t-shirts, Mahlasela quickly grabs a seat, as Trucks begins to burn through another take, his foot tapping the floor, his eyes focused and his fills embellishing Vusi’s existing rhythm tracks. At the end of the fifth take, Trucks has it. “Beautiful,” Mahlasela smiles.

Under Vusi’s grin, a hand-drawn, cartoonish Earth floats above his first name on a brown T-shirt. It’s a somehow fitting image. Here, at this moment, two cultures are colliding in the best possible way. The Florida-born Trucks, one of the two guitarists in a band that for many defines Southern rock, is making music with a poet-singer-guitarist from a country whose black citizens endured istitutionalized racism decades beyond the close of the United States’ own civil rights movement. It’s also an example of how Mahlasela, since signing with ATO Records in 2003, has begun to see his global reputation balloon.

While still entrenched in South Africa, where his star has been on the rise for more than a decade, American audiences began learning of Mahlasela’s charms three years ago when the virtuosic vocalist and finger-picking guitar wizard issued The Voice, a collection of his best songs compiled and released in the U.S. for the first time via the BMG-partnered ATO, which is co-owned by longtime admirer (and fellow South African) Dave Matthews.

Indeed, were it not for Matthews, Trucks would not be here tonight. While a fan of world music, the guitarist only discovered Vusi through Allman Brothers bandmate Warren Haynes, an ATO artist as well, who duetted with Mahlasela at the 2003 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Recalls Trucks, “He was like, ‘You gotta hear this guy, he’s amazing!’”

The guitarist was indeed so impressed that he asked Vusi to open a recent Derek Trucks Band tour, giving him a bunk on the group’s bus. “It was a magical few weeks,” Trucks says. “There’s not many spirits like his on the planet. He’s just completely positive all the time. You know when you’re on t