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Proclaiming Joy, in Concert, on His 75th Birthday

The New York Times
Jon Pareles

Photograph by Robert Caplin for The New York Times
Photograph by Robert Caplin
for The New York Times

When Hugh Masekela celebrated his 75th birthday on Friday night, with a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert at Rose Theater, he recalled pivotal advice from Harry Belafonte, who was in the audience. In 1960, Mr. Masekela left the brutal apartheid of his birthplace, South Africa, to become a trumpeter in New York. He recalled that Mr. Belafonte, an early supporter, urged him to “put some of that stuff from your home into what you do.”

That’s what Mr. Masekela has done through the decades, carrying the rhythms, languages, memories, social consciousness and spirit of South Africa worldwide. His 1968 hit “Grazing in the Grass” introduced many Americans to the beat of South African township jive, and during his years as an expatriate, Mr. Masekela became a forthright symbol of the antiapartheid movement. He returned to live in South Africa in 1990, the year Nelson Mandela was released from prison; he ended Friday’s expansive concert with “Mandela (Bring Him Back Home),” a positive-thinking protest song from 1987.

Friday’s concert was full of South African rhythms and songs that pushed earnestness toward joy. Mr. Masekela played fluegelhorn with luminous clarity and his distinctive, gently jabbing phrases. Just as often he sang: about struggle, improving the world and finding love. His hearty voice, undiminished at 75, could unleash rasps, growls and whoops, applying them for both fervor and comedy.

Mr. Masekela made his messages clear. When he sang in Zulu exhorting mankind to respect the environment and end wars, he followed up with a translation. “Stimela” (“Coal Train”) began with a detailed narrative in English about the grim trains that carry African laborers to backbreaking jobs in the mines; the music gathered speed, mimicking the motion of the train itself and ending with Mr. Masekela screeching in falsetto like brakes and train whistles.

Yet Mr. Masekela is far more an entertainer than a lecturer. He had jokes, singalongs and dance moves, along with those South African grooves that have optimism built in to their major chords. His upbeat version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” made the song sound far more relieved than vindictive. His backup quintet — four South Africans, including the versatile guitarist Cameron John Ward, and a percussionist from Sierra Leone — rolled through the songs with dynamics that sounded as natural as they were well rehearsed.

Mr. Masekela had lent crucial approval to Paul Simon’s 1986 “Graceland” album, which was denounced at the time by some antiapartheid activists as a breach of the cultural boycott of South Africa; he joined Mr. Simon’s “Graceland” tour in 1987. Mr. Simon returned the favor on Friday, singing two songs from “Graceland” as reshaped by Mr. Masekela and his band, with the rhythms shifted toward jazz and Mr. Masekela’s fluegelhorn answering Mr. Simon’s vocals. They finished “You Can Call Me Al” with a reprise of the train-whistle finale of “Stimela.”

Another guest also seized the spotlight: the prodigious South African singer Sibongile Khumalo, between her sets at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s club next door, Dizzy’s. Her improvisation encompassed percussive scat-singing, curvaceous long lines, sharp-toned hints of traditional singing, and airborne, operatic swoops. Virtuosic, sophisticated and crowd-pleasing, it reaffirmed the kind of South African jazz that Mr. Masekela has done so much to disseminate.

Hay Festival, review: ‘the George Formby of South Africa’

Photograph by Clara Molden

Hugh Masekela, now 75, shows he has lost none of his passion in a golden performance at the 2014 Hay Festival

The Telegraph
Martin Chilton

Photograph by Clara Molden

Hugh Masekela grew up with all kinds of American musical influences as a teenager, from Benny Goodman to Lionel Hampton. But he also had some British influences, too, including George Formby, a Lancashire ukulele player, singer and comic actor who made his start in musical halls. Formby might seem a surprising role model until you see Masekela perform. The South African jazz musician is a born showman.

Masekela sings with a wild abandon; he sent flugelhorn lines plunging and soaring; he delighted the audience at the Hay Festival with a string of anecdotes, jokes and social and political statements. It was very entertaining.

Masekela turned 75 last month and the story of how, aged 13, he was inspired to become a musician after seeing the film Young Man with a Horn, in which Kirk Douglas plays a jazz trumpeter based on Bix Beiderbecke, is pretty well known. But, more than six decades on, he has lost none of his passion for music.

His patter was sometimes schmaltzy – “thank you, you people of Hay-on-Wye, we are going to make you go on tour with us from now” – but it also came with statements that reminded you of the courageous battles this long-time anti-apartheid campaigner had fought. “Humans have behaved very badly towards one another,” he said. “Let’s cut out all this colour thing and all the bull—- that goes with it.”

Masekela, who first came to England in 1961, when he studied trumpet at the Guildhall School, went off on an enjoyable riff about actually being from Inverness (“my real name is Gregory Scotty McGgregor the third . . . junior”) but the patter did not overwhelm the inimitable mix of American bebop idioms, rhythm and blues and South African traditions in the music.
There was a smashing version of Masekela’s own song Stimela, about the trains that carry migrant workers from their homes. He evoked the sound of the train in a piercing scream but you could sense the implication of human tragedy underneath, and his gravely voice, so guttural at the lower range, is still special.

A mention, too, for the band, whose skill gives Masekela the foundation to be at such magisterial ease. Masekela must know what a talent he has in Cameron John Ward, whose stunning stylistic range and sweet guitar licks were such a feature of the show. It didn’t stop the grand old man teasing the youngster, though. Masekela told the crowd, when introducing Ward, that they must not tell anyone they had seen Ward playing: “because he is on probation from the criminal school for boys and the police and his mother are still looking for him”.

The great thing about the Hay Festival is its variety. As Masekela was delighting fans in the Tata Tent, a mere 30 second walk away, in the Telegraph Tent, The Super Furry Animals founder Gruff Rhys was delighting audiences with a show of incredible imagination – while wearing a furry wolf head.

There was an irresistible sunny optimism to Masekela’s concert, with the audience either dancing in their seats or in the aisles, but for all the showmanship, it was his unmistakable golden flugelhorn tone that was so memorable.

Hugh Masekela entertains in Siparia

Richardson Dhalai

The musical collaboration between legendary South African trumpeter, composer and singer, Hugh Masekela, and the Siparia Deltones Steel Orchestra has been described as a melding of musical forms that is destined to propel this nation’s musical genre further onto the world’s musical stage.

That was the general consensus following a free concert titled “Siparia to Soweto” at the Ellis Knight panyard, Railway road, Siparia last Saturday night. A number of songs by national musical icons such as the Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts) and the Mighty Sparrow (Slinger Francisco) were given a musical make over by the five-time Grammy award winner and the southern based steel orchestra at the event.

Masekela, 75, who was given a standing ovation, not only enthralled the large audience with his mastery of the trumpet but also provided humourous anecdotes about his life. He told them he had been “first turned on to Trinidad music by a Bajan girl” some 54 years ago who had asked him whether he had ever heard about the likes of Lord Kitchener and the Mighty Sparrow.

“That became the soundtrack of our romance,” he said, as the audience laughed heartily.

Masekela said he first heard the Siparia Deltones in 2005 when they performed at the San Fernando Jazz Festival and revealed that he was impressed by their performance.

“This group came on and they were playing some really jazzy music and after they finished, I said ‘wow’,” he admitted.

He said eight years later, while at the St Lucia Jazz festival, he was invited to participate in a musical collaboration with the steelband. He had journeyed to Trinidad after this and spent time learning the “songs of the country.”

Masekela also revealed that he had spent six weeks in the “jungle of Fyzabad” where, in addition to learning about the music and the Trinidadian language, he had also learned how to “burn red jeps” that had taken residence outside the music studio. He also learned various preparations to control mosquitoes and bats, the latter of which lived in the ceiling.

“I have fallen in love with the music,” he said, adding, “and now I can understand what everybody is saying.” After another enthralling musical set, Masekela, who spoke to the audience in a conversational tone, said he had prepared for the rehearsals by eating lots of Julie mangoes saying they made him cry.

“I cry whenever I eat Julie mango, it is such a joy,” he said.

Masekela also revealed that he had discovered Trinidad’s other musical forms, such as chutney music, saying he had initially thought that chutney was “something I eat in my curry”. He then introduced a song set that included the tabla (drums).

“In this project, I tried to get as many facets of Trinidad culture,” he said, before introducing singer, Alicia Jagessar, who sang a parang with a jazz/steelband flavour.

The album, which was co-arranged by Deltones’ Carlton “Zanda” Alexander features 12 songs comprising classics from Lord Kitchener, the Mighty Sparrow, Baron (Timothy Watkins), the Mighty Shadow (Winston Bailey) and Daisy Voisin together with two songs composed by Alexander. Masekela was born in Kwa-Guqa Township, Witbank, South Africa and began singing and playing piano as a child.

He was given the Order of Ikhamanga in the South African National Orders Ceremony in 2010 by South African President, Jacob Zuma.

The Siparia Deltones, which was founded in 1962, comprises of 73 members, mainly students and have participated in several competitions.

Bayelsa International Jazz Festival


BIJF: Femi Kuti, Hugh Masekela soak Yenagoa in jazz

The Sun
Kemi Yesufu

The Yuletide season couldn’t have started on a better note for Bayelsans and numerous jazz enthusiasts who stormed the Gloryland Cultural Center, Yenagoa on Saturday, December 7 for the inaugural edition of the Bayelsa International Jazz Festival.

All over Yenagoa, which is fast earning a reputation of a town that never sleeps, Christmas decorations give visitors a feel of celebration. It therefore came as no surprise that the Gloryland Center, venue of the jazz fiesta was filled to capacity. The atmosphere at the venue was carnival-like. It is doubtful that there were unoccupied seats as those who couldn’t get a place to sit, stood for the better part of the lively show which opened with a heart lifting rendition of the national anthem by Timi Dakolo.

Festival dedicated to Mandela

The Bayelsa International Jazz Festival took place two days after the death of highly revered Anti-Apartheid icon and first black president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. After leading in observing a minute of silence in respect of the late African leader, Governor Dickson announced that the festival was dedicated to him. The announcement was met with loud jubilation even as the governor declared that Mandela’s legacy is indelibly etched in the hearts of millions across the world. The governor was to return to the stage for a second time to present legendary South African musician, Hugh Masekela with the honorary citizenship of Bayelsa State.

Presidential commendation

President Goodluck Jonathan, who was represented at the event by the Minister of Culture and Tourism, Chief Edem Duke, commended the Bayelsa governor for honoring the memory of Mandela. He reminded guests that the federal government had earlier declared three days of mourning in recognition of the great contributions of the late icon to the emancipation of the black race. He said the dedication of such a major event to Mandela, points to the sterling leadership qualities of Governor Dickson.

“I am extremely delighted that this government dedicated this evening of jazz to celebrate an icon, whose struggle, vision, quality, courage, passion, commitment, belief, and whose integrity is definitive of the new and emerging leaders of Africa,” he said.

South Africa High Commissioner to Nigeria, Mr. Lulu Louis Mnguni, while expressing gratitude for the recognition given Mandela, said that the event also presented an opportunity to celebrate musicians such as Masekela and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti who fought apartheid through music. Rwandan envoy, Mr. Joseph Habineza, equally had words of praise for the people of Bayelsa as he described their state as the emerging Las Vegas of Africa.

N200m for Bayelsa musicians

It wasn’t only the South African maestro who was honored by the Bayelsa State government. Governor Dickson also announced the donation of N200 million as the initial sum for the establishment of a music school in the state and an endowment fund for Ijaw artistes. Timaya, Timi Dakolo, Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria and Honorary Special Adviser to the Governor on Tourism, Anne Banner joined him in presenting the donation to the Director General of the state’s tourism agency, Ebizi Ndomu-Brown. Dickson who stressed his commitment to youth empowerment, called on young people in the state to take advantage of the opportunities presented by his administration.

Night of scintillating jazz

It definitely wasn’t a night for speeches. Rather it was a harvest of world-class entertainment. Though, jazz super star, Earl Klugh sent his apologies via a video message, he wasn’t missed, as the artistes on the night were superb. There never was a dull moment, not even for new entrants in jazz music. Starting from Ego whose smooth jazz tunes set the standard for the night. She showed fun seekers why her voice is celebrated. Then there was African jazz groove from Ogangbe, the 7-piece Benin Republic band that has worked with big names like Femi Kuti and Lagbaja. There was also the invigorating performance from jazz vocalist and instrumentalist, Lekan Babalola. The lanky musician and his 14-member crew that included the Eko Brass Band got the crowd singing along. Then, there was the energetic drum session by South Africa-based, Delta-born drummer, Daniel Isele. He heralded the entrance of the 22-man Naijazz All-Stars Band. Highflying jazz vocalist, Somi also had a good time on stage. Her three-song set ended with her cover of Fela’s ‘Lady’.

Masekela, Femi channel Fela

Undoubtedly, South African trumpeter and vocalist, Hugh Masekela and Femi Kuti were the star attractions for the Bayelsa International Jazz festival. Their five-star performances ensured that they lived up to the hype. Masekela whose vigour and stagecraft makes it hard to believe that he is 74-years-old got a standing ovation after his performance. The music icon, who along with his band, performed in the Ijaw traditional attires, channeled late Afrobeat creator, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti with his version of ‘Lady’. He further won the hearts of guests at the show when he pronounced very well Izonkene, the name given him by Governor Dickson.

Femi Kuti and his band took their turn on stage. He promised to give Bayelsans a taste of what is enjoyed at the New Afrika Shrine and he did. Despite the semi-formal atmosphere at the show, Femi’s dancers were at their best moving their bodies like they do back in their base. Most men at the show had an eyeful of the fire dance African women are known for. Femi, who joined the girls at some point for dance sessions, as usual didn’t spare government his dosage of ‘yabis’. Though, he commended Governor Dickson for the developmental projects dotting the state, he advised that more should be done to improve the lot of Bayelsans. Songs like ‘Sorry Sorry’, ‘Truth Don Die’, ‘Dem Bobo’, ‘Bang Bang Bang’ and ‘Water’ got the 4th Grammy nominee loud cheers from the crowd.

The show lasted till the early hours of Sunday, but the happiness exhibited by fun seekers was indicative of the fact that it had what it takes to become a major event in the Nigeria’s tourism calendar.

Serious Presents Hugh Masekela & Larry Willis



Press Release

“Damn, do they swing!” **** Rolling Stone

Tuesday 5 November | SOUTHAMPTON Turner Sims |
Sunday 10 November | OXFORD St. John the Evangelist Church |
Monday 11 November | NOTTINGHAM Lakeside | SOLD OUT
Wednesday 13 November | MANCHESTER RNCM |
Thursday 14 November | BRISTOL St. George’s |
Friday 15 November | LONDON Royal Festival Hall |
Saturday 16 November | BIRMINGHAM Town Hall |

A rare opportunity to experience the intimate side of South African maestro Hugh Masekela, in a sumptuously lyrical series of duets with master pianist Larry Willis, revisiting a long friendship stretching back to their days together at college in New York in the 60s.

Hugh Masekela, one of the most important figures in South African music, is also one of its biggest personalities, who has been performing, recording, and fighting apartheid for over five decades, and has worked with the Who’s Who of South African and international musicians.

“A musician of phenomenal grace and power; intricate and fiery on flugelhorn and still blessed with a voice that can strip the leaves from the trees.” The Independent

Larry Willis has long been a force on the New York jazz scene. His bold, frenetic, and ambitious playing found a home in the free jazz scene and also landed Willis recording dates with Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, and Stan Getz. A long-time devotee of Herbie Hancock, Willis later moved into jazz-rock and fusion, and joined forces with Hugh for their celebrated earlier coalition, Almost Like Being in Jazz.

Their new release Friends is a masterpiece of chamber jazz combined with the sheer exuberance of the Masekela style. These concerts, based on the music of the Friends album, showcase the virtuosity and immense emotional capacity of both artists.

The London show has been moved from the Queen Elizabeth Hall to the Royal Festival Hall because the QEH concert was completely sold out.


London-based performance poet, writer and musician Zena Edwards will be playing an opening set on all these dates, premiering a new work commissioned by the PRS For Music Foundation’s Women Make Music fund.

“Zena fuses the raw elements of urban experiences and expresses them through individualised rhythms of hip hop and jazz.” BBC Radio 1

The Masekela, Willis and Gismonti Southern Connection

Mail and Guardian
Stefanie Jason

Photograph by Jennifer Wheatley/Geotribe
Photograph by Jennifer Wheatley/Geotribe

Johannesburg came alive on Saturday evening when jazz greats took to the stage for “South Meets South — An Evening With The Masters”.

The feelings of familiarity rose from the soft cries of Hugh Masekela’s flugelhorn and the timeous notes from Larry Willis’s piano playing. This familiarity is undoubtedly owed to their long friendship and musical chemistry evinced on stage at the Johannesburg Arts Alive International Festival’s show at Mary Fitzgerald Square in Newtown, on Saturday.

As the two played classic jazz standards into the night, Masekela’s poor boy hat, wide tie and waistcoat, and Willis’s retro grey suit and eyewear added even more nostalgia to their show.

With bellows so heavy, Masekela’s knees buckled trying to carry the cries of his voice and horn while the crowd’s enthusiasm buoyed his sound. This was matched as Willis—a native New Yorker who has played alongside jazz legends such as saxophonist Jackie McLean and vocalist Carmen McRae—did more than just carry the melody.

Despite the venue’s cavernous feel that hardly provided the intimate setting this type of show deserved, the two musicians somehow managed to maintain a connection between them and the crowd.

Greeting the sea of diverse faces in the sparsely lit oversized tent, Masekela prepared the audience for a set featuring a “kaleidoscope of music” that influenced him and Willis throughout their 53-year-long friendship. With each song that followed came a comical or emotionally stirring anecdote told in the charismatic way the legendary South African musician has become famous for.

From stories of Masekela and Lewis’s time spent at New York’s Manhattan School of Music in the 1960s, to being introduced to each other and eventually starting a band—the award-winning trumpeter, flugelhornist and singer proudly spoke of their musical journey together.

‘Golden era of music’

“We met during the golden era of music in New York,” reminisced Masekela about his early years spent with Lewis jazz-club hopping in the Big Apple. Listing what they gravitated towards, he said: “We would see Count Bassie, Dinah Washington or Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers … and always ended up at the Village Vanguard to see Miles Davis every night that he was there.”

And with this long list of revered jazz greats he spoke of, Willis and Masekela played songs such as Easy Living by Billie Holiday and Clifford Brown, Fats Waller’s Until the Real Thing Comes Along and Billy’s Bounce by Charlie Parker.

Echoing what he said at TEDxObserver event in March last year—”Heritage is something that is beneficial to a society”—Masekela enthralled the audience with songs from his home country. Masekela was joined on stage by singer Pu2ma, the harmonising brothers from Vosloorus, in Ekurhuleni, called Complete—who provide backing vocals—and keyboardist Randall Skippers. They performed a few South African tracks such as Holilili and Abangoma, taught to Masekela by the late Miriam Makeba, who he said was “a stickler for tradition”.

Egberto Gismonti and Dr L Subramaniam

Living up to the event’s “South Meets South” title, which is part of the “Ten Days in September” theme as the festival takes place over 10 days across different venues in Jo’burg, the show featured acts from South India and Brazil, representing the Latin American south. The involvement of these countries at the event also forms part of the festival’s tribute to the inclusion of South Africa in the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group.

Opening the event was India’s acclaimed classical violinist Dr L Subramaniam and his band, who took to the stage for an hour of Carnatic sounds. Leaving the crowd spellbound with his virtuoso technique, Subramaniam’s sounds reached a peak of frenetic yet melodic sounds that set the mood for the night.

Following Subramaniam, was one of Brazil’s most skilled instrumentalists Egberto Gismonti. Showing off his background in classical piano before moving on to playing the 10- and 12-string guitar, Gismonti kicked off his set on the piano with a deep and dramatic rendition of Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen opus 15 number 7 Träumerei.

Gismonti later admitted that a technical glitch with his guitar meant he couldn’t play it as he had planned to. When he was finally handed the 12-string instrument, Gismonti warmed and smoothed his set out as he played only one song before expressing dissatisfation over the sound of the guitar and the lack of silence in the tent. “This guitar is almost broken. It needs a certain silence,” he said before playing what he called a “Norwegian flute”—known as a seljefloyte or an overtone flute.

Giving the audience lessons on how to play the part percussive, part wind instrument, Gismonti seemed to have forgotten about his guitar problems when he made jokes about the seljefloyte.

Before wrapping up the cool spring night, Willis and Masekela came full circle as they made newtown indeed a space for south and south to connect when they played When It’s Sleepy Time Down South, made famous by trumpeter Louis Armstrong.

Before playing it, Masekela spoke warmly of Armstrong—a musician who influenced the young Hugh and sent Masekela’s high school music group, the Huddleston Jazz Band, a trumpet after hearing about the band he helped set up. As the lights fell on the duo, Masekela praised renowned Satchmo’s legacy, saying: “If it weren’t for Louis Armstrong, we wouldn’t be here.”

Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis Tour the UK in November

Photograph by Jennifer Wheatley / Geotribe

Jazzwise Magazine
Nick Webb

Photograph by Jennifer Wheatley / Geotribe

Revered South African trumpeter and flugelhorn player Hugh Masekela sets out on the road in the UK with pianist Larry Willis this November, climaxing with an appearance at the EFG London Jazz Festival. Tickets to the London show on 15 November sold out so fast that the venue was moved from the Queen Elizabeth Hall to the Royal Festival Hall.

Masekela and Willis’ long friendship dates back to the 1960s when they were both studying in New York. Masekela’s playing, rich in the traditions of South African music, is tempered with the lyricism of Willis’ free-jazz and fusion piano. The concerts are based around the material of their 2012 album Friends. The tour dates are: Turner Sims, Southampton (5 Nov); St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford (10 Nov); Lakeside, Nottingham (11 Nov); RNCM, Manchester (13 Nov); St. George’s, Bristol (14 Nov); Royal Festival Hall, London (15 Nov); and Town Hall, Birmingham (16 Nov).

Apology to Hugh Masekela


My Apology to Hugh Masekela: He and Larry Willis gave the performance of a lifetime at the Dakota

Insight News
Harry Colbert Jr

I take great pride in being a journalist.

I recognize the true honor bestowed upon me. I strive every day to be truthful, thoughtful and accurate and maintain the public’s trust. It’s a weighty


job. Yes, in the past I have erred. I’ve left off a period at the end of a sentence here or there. I have missed a word that should have been capitalized – forgot to add an apostrophe … nothing major, but errors nonetheless. It happens with every writer. You beat yourself up over it, maybe say a foul word (or few), but you move on.

In all my years as a journalist, I’ve never had to write a retraction – until now. Hugh Masekela, I owe you an apology.

I recently interviewed jazz great, Hugh Masekela over the telephone. Prior to the interview, I had very (I mean very) little knowledge of this great treasure. I was given the assignment to do an advance write-up of his Dakota Jazz Club performance, so I did some cursory research (Google, YouTube) and thought, OK, I have everything I need to conduct the interview.

I mean I was impressed with his 1968 Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Pop Performance – Instrumental for the song, “Grazin’ in the Grass.” I faintly remember hearing it a time or two. I remember liking it. I read of his political activities to end apartheid in his native South Africa. Again, I was impressed with his work, but I’ll be honest; I wasn’t seeing much there story-wise other than another old timer coming to town to play some stale, dull version of jazz that I was sure would have me bored to tears.

Mr. Masekela, sir, I owe you the grandest of apologies. Readers of Insight News/Aesthetically Speaking I owe you an apology.


Now don’t get me wrong; my write-up was factually accurate. I didn’t misquote the man or anything. But I didn’t truly tell his story because I didn’t truly know his story. You see, one can’t know his story until one witnesses his greatness.

Now I can tell the story of Hugh Masekela.

A bit of candor, I almost didn’t go to the show I previewed of Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis at the Dakota Jazz Club. I wasn’t assigned the story; and besides, my plate was pretty full already. But the night before the show, I had dinner with a friend visiting from out of town and she mentioned she was going to the Dakota for a show the next day. She didn’t know who was performing, but someone suggested she check it out. I replied that I did an article about the show and as a way to catch up I decided I’d go as well.

We went to the 9 p.m. show – the duo’s second show of the night. I wasn’t expecting much. After all, the two are both in their 70s and this was their second show. They had to be plum tuckered out. Yeah, right.

Then something magical occurred.

With nothing more than Masekela’s trumpet and voice and Willis’ piano playing I, along with the couple hundred in the audience, were treated to the performance of a lifetime.

In all honesty, I’ll probably need to issue another apology to the two because I just don’t feel my vocabulary is vast enough to express the greatness that the two old friends displayed on that stage. But a once-in-a-lifetime feeling fell over me listening to these two treasures, and listening to Masekela tell tales of hanging out in Harlem and stories of playing with Miles Davis and the stories he told of Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughn. It was like getting a first-hand lesson in music history, delivered by one of the deans of the college.

I didn’t just hear Masekela and Willis – I felt them. I felt them deep in my soul in a place never before reached.

Now ask me to name the numbers they played and I can name two, maybe three at best. Of course there was “Grazin'” and Masekela’s version of the Herbie Hancock classic, “Cantaloupe Island” served as the encore (and of course after that show, there had to be an encore), but other that that, my ears were virgin. But I didn’t need to know the titles of the songs. For all I care, every song is nameless. Their performance was timeless.

To sum things up, I’ll offer you the Facebook status I posted while in a virtual trance witnessing what I was unbelievably witnessing.

“Have you ever experienced something so wonderful, so beautiful, that you were sad a bit because a special someone wasn’t there to experience it with you? That’s how beautiful the music is tonight.”

That’s about the best I can do in describing what I saw. It was so powerful, so wonderful I felt I needed to share that glorious moment.

That moment needed to be shared. I failed in my job as a journalist to accurately tell Mr. Masekela’s story. His horn and his voice told me the story. Now I can truly tell his story. Unfortunately, I’m telling it after the fact, not before.

Will you please accept my apology?

To read the original article click here

Rolling Stone Review of ‘Playing At Work’


Hugh Masekela: Dr Funk-Einstein

Rolling Stone
Bongani Madondo

Rock’n’roll wild man, jazz veteran, agent provocateur, the inde-funkable Hugh Masekela digs back to his funk journey with his record, ‘Playing @ Work’. Bongani Madondo, who had given up on hearing any surprises in Hughie’s work, is forced to eat his notebooks and bow before the Master at Work.

With over six decades at the Coalface of his calling – for this is not a “career” … something sinisterly persuasive, something that doesn’t ask your permission before swallowing your life and the lives of your beloveds – there just aren’t any creative spaces Hugh Masekela has not explored.

His latest album, Playing @ Work, is a primer of an artist in full control of the fact that he cannot really be fully in control of where his creative demons take him – that’s if being fully in control means sticking to the tried-and-tested, same ol’ style his die-hard fans love to pigeonhole him in. But, like his fellow late-night crawlers and debauched pals, Miles “Dewey III” Davis and Jimi Hendrix, Masekela is notorious for bucking the trend, altering your listening sensibilities, kicking a buck’ of cold water on your face, flooring you with his horn, and waking the goddamned out of you.


In other words, Hughie just doesn’t give a funk if you rock or roll with him – so long as you listen, he’ll surely rearrange everything else you were certain you knew about him. There’s not much he has not done, recorded, played live, imagined, discarded, embraced or dreamt of in this biz: from street performance, recorded albums, musicals, film scores, and so on. With a his-“story” of playing with everyone – Herb Alpert, Miriam Makeba, Fela, Hedzoleh Soundz – to stage invitations to rock, with outfits such as U2, The Rolling Stones, up to latter-day township prog-punks Blk Jks and experimental collaborations with dance stalwarts such as Thandiswa Mazwai and Black Coffee, Masekela’s space, time and influence defies even his much-celebrated versatility. Masekela is timeless. Generations that, seemingly, have no direct links with each other have watched, dealt with, enjoyed – as well as engaged with – the artist remaking not only himself, but his art, while remaining true to his roots: a dynamic African musician for all seasons.

That’s Hughie for you.

From stylistic demands of several genres such as mbaqanga to funk, jazz, soul, house and back, Hugh Masekela traverses all with acute understanding, open ear and respect, and is not only dynamic and creatively receptive, but rare within a modern sphere of artistic creation.

Masekela is not a versatile artist. He is versatility itself. He is in fact Music, itself: as in, the sound and creative turmoil responsible for that which he is known for – Music. All transformative music, by its nature, and all alchemists practising the gift of “ngoma” (that is the art of making a “song”, thus making all songs creators as “aba”-Ngoma, the Healers), can go any which way at any time.

In his life, art, speech, mannerisms, gait and, if you know him, laughter and style, Hughie is all music. He is not about, or for, music. He is Music! Because of that, because we relate to him as we would relate to that which he creates, we react to him the way we re- act to music – an omnipresent force or act of nature in our lives.

We react to him in the way we would react to the air we breathe: that is, we don’t react as much as breathe it. We take for granted that it’s there and that without it there’s no life. We react to him in the ways we would react to the food we ingest into our bodies to sustain us. We hold him as the soul-force and the trip through which we strive for renewal. We appreciate and have rendered him part of who we are as a people in the way we do with personal and collective prayers, and meditative trips we take. We feel him with the same knowledge that we cannot avoid the daily grind of problems, sorrows and sadness – the Blues, to wit. But we also hear him to be the sound of triumphs and glories we are transformed by.

It becomes easy then, to get used to Hughie, in the same manner that folks get used to life while, of course, never ever getting used to death. In that sense, the person Ramapolo “Hugh” Masekela (child and grandchild of amaNdebele) and the music of the celebrated “Bra” Hughie – the international musical polyglot, composer, musical director, trumpeter, band leader and writer – has become part of who we are.

All well and good, but we should also refuse to get used to him as an artist, for artists, especially boundary-pushing, innovative, restless spirits such as Masekela, are never the same as they were yesterday, and you just don’t know what tomorrow might do with them, or what they will do tomorrow. Take his latest offering, Playing @ Work. Prior to listening to it, one might get apprehensive simply because you just have no idea what this Done-It-All has to say anymore – if he has anything more to say. And then it just hits you in all the right places … and then some!

Hugh Masekela’s latest record is a double disc of innovative, classical, reworked and freshly- composed music that largely sets, implores and beckons you onto the dance floor, while, in typical Masekela manner, slaps you bang across the heart with his incendiary and unifying, socially- conscious message.

The first disc packs strong-and-warm, but alert-and-alive music. Masekela is just incapable of creating music that just leaves you in peace. No, he is not a “peaceful” artist, if by peace you expect art for art’s sake. Not that he eschews creating music for the sheer pleasure of it; he does, although even when he does that. somehow the music is incapable of just leaving you alone.

On Disc 1, the song “Africa Hold Hands” serves as an establishing shot. And what a visual shot it proposes! The message – more a pan-African call for unification than just a simple reactionary “anti-xenophobic” reaction – is wrapped in a work of persuasive musicality and execution. For a few minutes, the song opens with playful piano chops, so clean, so taut, so direct that for a minute you think it’s a piece entirely redolent with strings in that Rex-Rabanye-township-string tradition, for the piano lingers a little longer with the clever precision, or editing, that introduces the song’s entire instrumental blast. Led by a cheeky and groove-riding bass, this is funk – Afro-funk if you will – for who do you know that’s phonkier than Hughie, albeit a different performance of funk altogether. It is mbaqanga funk quite distinct to South Africa. Synchronised and cooked together, the music is catchy, warm … hip-swivellingly touchy as well. The energy is reminiscent of Masekela’s longest and highest international charting song of all time – “Grazing In The Grass” – or at least a sample of it as used in the Hollywood Black Power biopic of Pete Green, Talk To Me. With this song, you are sucked into an imaginary climate … conjuring images of summer with communities playing communal drumming at dusk and children playing khati, and so on.

Well, it don’t stop – Hughie won’t stop there.

Building on the intensity of the opening track, he risks everything and throws caution to the wind with Track 2: a remake of Bob Dy- lan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. The original piece by the “Village Poet” Dylan was included in his 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home, the title itself an allusion to a blues and gospel idiom, as well as emotional quest, which, sung by Dylan, immediately assumed a staggering social import.

In this latest interpretation, Masekela renders Dylan probably at his funkiest ever since his own “Changing of the Guards” (1978) from the album Street Legal and “Blind Willie McTell” from Bootleg Series, Vol 3. In English: Bob Dylan has never sounded so urgent, so tomorrow, so funky, so down ‘n greasy, and yet so hopeful. The song is fuller, rounder, edgier, and the musicality (its balladry); the quality of the recording itself is more filling, and gives off more pronounced textures and colours. While the music is more up-beat, the chorus, delivered by choir-like back-up singers, gifts the song with renewed shape altogether – what Americans refer to as “audacity”, sometimes. So much so that the song you heard has almost no resemblance to Dylan’s song.

This is a Hugh Masekela song and its aural density and African spirit will remind of exactly that; that is, were we to have visitations of doubt. In Masekela’s hands it also morphs into a dance piece, without losing its poignancy. How Hughie, the musical director in his own right, does this, beats me. Must be the years running around with those West Africans! (This is said in the jesting tradition and, as backhanded compliment to Ghanaian and Nigerian music’s intra-wired funk and dance roots, and never pejorative.)

As though the introductory bleeds too much groove, he segues into “Soul Rebel”, a paean to his onetime pal, the Jamaican-born international Africa social soul brother No. 1 – Robert Nesta Marley: His Royal Bobness!

Other compositions such as “Makotopong”, the name of Masekela’s current recording home outside of Pretoria, and “Perlemoen” round up a very satisfying Side A of this double-whammy.

Side B (or Disc 2) is no walkover, though.

Although, musically, it continues both the mbaqanga-jazz-dance fusion (for both traditionalists and cyber-age hipsters) it also, and subtly, continues with Masekela’s celebration of his peers and seers who held the game long before we were born; the songs here give it an identity all its own. So it is as much a stand-alone as it is a continuation of the journey from Disc 1.

Although the entirety of this Side B is framed in tight and economic delivery, the overwhelm- ing feel here is of assured jazzier pathways: you can say, if you dare, that Hughie is going back to what made him such a force to be reckoned with in the first place: African roots synthesised with jazz. Hughie steals the whole thing from Theory and puts flesh to it so that, in his music, you get to appreciate in real time what is meant by jazz as an African art-form. The tempo here is slightly and deceptively slower, the instrumentation and singing cleaner and nuanced. This time around, funk gives way to a jazz with a gospel or soul twist.

Although the most emotionally poignant centrepiece of the entire disc is the melancholic groove and bass beauty found in “Where He Leads Me”, the song that might just turn out to be the most associated with this two-disc smacker is Masekela’s 1970s composition, which he never performed though it was made popular by the late Miriam Makeba: “Soweto Blues”.

Now I believe Masekela might yet prove to be the master remix visionary of our time, and by “remix” we do not imply the house music DJ tag of an artist who resamples and remixes several classics with contemporary computer-digitised beats. His ingenuity, almost sharing the same ethos as the young house DJs, lies in his ability to fuse new energy into a classic or older piece of work: updating it, rebuilding it, recoating it, while carrying something about it that made it a classic in the first place. And that’s what he does here with “Soweto Blues”.

The song showcases the spirited – defiant, even – voice of Phuthuma, as well as small choral back- up that recalls both Makeba and Sarafina! the musical’s unmitigated defiance. Here, we listen in awe and nod our heads as the young woman rises up to dispense lessons – again on unity. She scorns ethnicity, brings our attention to the ills of society across ethnicities. She sings with the breathing technique of a time-keeping drummer, so that when she’s comfortable knowing she’s got our at- tention, immediately and without changing, playing to the gallery or her studio producer’s approval, she draws us into a stirring gospel rendition of a classic African song.

Phuthuma’s coaxing, defiance and pride are, in the way Masekela easy-does it, accentuated by great accompaniment, experience, love and just the ol’ playful declaration of love for the muse. This time around, the art of music creating itself, more than any other subject matter, serves as Hugh’s most reliable muse and trustworthy guide. The same spirit washes over the double album.

With this offering (and, hey, who knows?) possibly inspired by renewed vigour, Masekela creamed off his award-winning and internationally-touring Songs of Migration musical, reminding us why we imagined and wished to own him, breathe him; how we have internalised him, sung him and sung with him in the first place.

With this album, he gives us that which has been lost or died within us: hope, vitality, defiance, beauty and currency. What else could you ask from any artist?

* * *


Contributing Artists:

Ramapolo Hugh Masekela – Flugel Horn and Vocals
Fana Zulu – Bass
Cameron John Ward – Guitar
Randal Skippers – Keyboards
Lee-Roy Sauls – Drums

Featured Artists
Complete Vocal Quartet

Producer: Hugh Masekela

Engineer: Garrick van der Tuin

Studio: House of Masekela – Makotopong

Mixed by: Stewart Levine

Mastered by: Bernie Grundman

Release Date: November 2012

Label: House of Masekela

Distributed by: Sheer Sound

Executive Producer: Pius Mokgokong

This is an article from the April 2013 issue of Rolling Stone South Africa. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

Playing @ Work Review by Afropolitan

Photo by Brett Rubin

Hugh Masekela – Playing @ Work

the afropolitan
Brenda Nyakudya

For more than six decades flugelhorn, cornet player and vocal legend Hugh Ramopolo Masekela has been producing music that feeds the soul.

From his humble beginnings in Witbank, South Africa, Hugh Masekela has not just made music for entertainment; he has been an agent of social and political change as he used his art to tell stories of pain and suffering during the dark days of apartheid. From his early career days with the Jazz Epistles to 2013 he has become a world-renowned artist, a vocal social commentator and an international icon. Hugh, affectionately known as Bra Hugh, is one of the few African artists to get mention at the Grammy Awards, when he was nominated in 1968 for the Best Contemporary Pop Performance for his album ‘Grazin’ in the Grass’.

His latest album, good-humouredly titled ‘Playing @ Work’, is a double CD offering, and Masekela’s 43rd album — and is just as fresh as his earlier work! The first disc is upbeat and opens with the track ‘Africa Hold Hands’ which is a clear and much needed call for Pan-African unity. The next track takes you on a different journey bringing in a total remake of the Bob Dylan 1965 classic, ‘It’s all over now, Baby Blues’, presenting it in his own Hugh Masekela African style. Soul Rebel is a passionate ode to a “fighter of human rights”, Bob Nester Marley and shows innovation as it fuses Afro-funk with a reggae twist.

The second disc brings in the Hugh Masekela of old; the jazz maestro who won his way into audiences’ heart with his trumpet. Featuring local artist Pu2ma on a track that was Miriam Makeba’s 70s hit ‘Soweto Blues’ was genius as she transforms it into a powerfully melodic beat. The rest of the album continues in the classical jazz tones with a bit of funk, soul and gospel thrown in for good measure.

Any fan of Bra Hugh will be pleased with this album as it shows that the musical master still has a few tricks up his sleeve and continues to make music to please.

Did You Know

Hugh Masekela serves as director on the board of The Lunchbox Fund, an establishment that works to ensure that school-going children in Soweto are provided a meal every day.

Hugh Masekela and Bob Dylan shared a producer (Tom Wilson) in the 1960s.

British priest, Trevor Huddleston, allegedly financed Masekela’s first trumpet.