Vusi Mahlasela The Voice

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ATO; www.atorecords.com.

American audiences' interest in African music has narrowed in recent years, shifting from artist to artist among the relatively few promoted by major record labels. South African pop, in particular, hasn't sustained the appeal that crested with the spectacular success of Paul Simon's 1986 breakthrough recording, Graceland. However, with the release of The Voice, 38-year-old Pretoria, South Africa, native Vusi Mahlasela seems ready to pick up where the internationally renowned Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Mahotella Queens left off. Blessed with a sweet and stirring voice, sometimes as high and transfixing as Youssou N'Dour's, sometimes warm, velvety, and comforting, Mahlasela arrives on Western shores with a veteran's credentials. He began recording in 1991, sang at Nelson Mandela's inauguration in 1994, and was featured in the soundtrack for the recent documentary Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony.

The Voice, Mahlasela's first North American release, gathers 14 of his recordings that were made over the past decade or so. Some of them sound like they could be outtakes from Graceland. But the CD as a whole does not come off as a sampler; its refreshing eclecticism draws on various South African tribal folk, pop, and jazz styles that dovetail in a compelling fashion. Mahlasela is a charismatic artist whose musical maturity is evident in the expressive depth of his singing (with several songs sung in English), his sparkling acoustic guitar style, and his songwriting themes, which address South African issues of struggle and martyrdom as well as universal messages of unity and liberation.

Contributing Editor Derk Richardson writes about popular culture for Yoga Journal the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and the Web site
SFGate (www.sfgate.com).