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POP MUSIC

Hope lives in the sound of Mahlasela

The South African singer came of age protesting apartheid, yet then as now, he conveyed optimism.

March 29, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

THERE was a particularly touching moment during South African singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela's performance at the El Rey Theatre a few months ago in the Acoustic Africa tour. Introducing a song about a young boy who "defied his elders," he added, with a gentle smile, "It was me."

The offhand, intimate quality of the comment was characteristic of Mahlasela, who makes a solo appearance Friday at the Skirball Cultural Center. Despite the fact that his songs are frequently filled with political subtext and despite his personal familiarity with the horrors of apartheid, his performances are optimistic and soulful, delivered with an intensity that captures the attention and embraces the heart.

Mahlasela is a prepossessing figure on stage -- large, bulky, with a bear-like presence that underscores the sensitivity with which he blends his voice and his guitar. Often, he darts smoothly through quick-paced melodic passages, his vocals moving fluidly in harmony with his instrumental lines. His songs are rendered across a surprisingly wide range of timbres, from airy head tones to a warm and furry middle range. And his gifts as a singing storyteller extend to his always engaging between-song commentary.

On Mahlasela's latest CD, "Guiding Star" (his second for fellow South African Dave Matthews' ATO label), yet another aspect of his talent -- stylistic diversity -- is on display.

Guest appearances by Matthews, Angelique Kidjo, slide guitarist Derek Trucks, Welsh vocalist Jem and South African jazz pianist Paul Hamner draw him across the full range of his skills, and he responds with typical enthusiasm and adeptness.

Mahlasela was born in 1965 in Pretoria's Lady Selbourne suburb and raised in the township of Mamelodi, a center for artistic activity in general and South African jazz in particular. He was drawn to poetry and music as a teen; his first instrument was a homemade guitar, constructed from tin cans and fishing line. But maturity came quickly, and by his late teens he was writing poetry and lyrics protesting apartheid and the white separatist control of South Africa's government.

He joined the Congress of South African Writers in 1988; thereafter, both his songs and his poetry were deeply influenced by the work of Miriam Makeba and the Chilean poet martyr Victor Jara.

Although his first album, "When You Come Back," was issued in South Africa in 1991, he wasn't heard by Western audiences until three of his songs (including the title number from "When You Come Back") were included on the soundtrack of the 2002 documentary "Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony."

Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic at the time, responded enthusiastically: "Vusi Mahlasela's voice is so pure and commanding, you wonder whether you should have gotten an entire album by him."

That "entire album" followed quickly. And the release later that year of "The Voice," a collection of Mahlasela songs from his catalog of South African recordings, finally triggered his breakthrough into the consciousness of Western fans of world music. The Acoustic Africa tour of 2006, in which he was teamed with Mali's Habib Koite and Ivory Coast's Dobet Gnahore, brought more recognition.

BUT increased visibility hasn't changed the essential nature of Mahlasela's music, which somehow manages to gather input from many parts of the world without losing touch with his deep, rooted connection to the traditional sounds of his homeland.

No wonder that Mahlasela has been a favorite of South Africa's first African president, Nelson Mandela (he sang at Mandela's inauguration in 1994), and has been selected as an ambassador to 46664, Mandela's campaign to help raise global awareness of AIDS/HIV.

And no wonder that novelist Nadine Gordimer, who has been an avid supporter since Mahlasela was a teenager, describes him in such glowing terms: "Vusi Mahlasela sings as a bird does: in total response to being alive.... He is a national treasure."

weekend@latimes.com

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Vusi Mahlasela

Where: Skirball Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Price: $25, $20 for members, $15 for students

Info: (866) 468-3399; www.ticketweb.com

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