Live Jazz: Hugh Masekela at Royce Hall
The International Review of Music
by Michael Katz
There are moments when all the ways we like to consider ourselves here in LA — multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-generational, the whole big melting pot simmering under a golden sun – get reflected in something bigger and make us think, “Hey, maybe that really IS us.” Friday was such a night in Westwood when 73 year old Hugh Masekela brought his band of South African musicians to UCLA Live and left venerable Royce Hall smoldering, the diverse crowd dancing and singing in clusters around the main stage.
Masekela brings two formidable weapons to his performances. There is his voice, gruff and guttural at the lower edges, where he begins in a chant and moves up the scale, mellow in the middle ranges, still capable of reaching the higher octaves. Whether augmenting the lyrics with narration or simply falling into a soft elegy, Masekela has the audience hanging on every note.
Then there is his flugelhorn. It’s a perfect instrument for Masekela. His tones are warm and robust, no need for pyrotechnics; sometimes heraldic, adding a tinge of gravity to the music, other times teasing the melody, evoking playfulness, or just plunging into Afro-pop-funk, stirring the audience into staccato clapping and more.
Masekela’s backing quintet crossed over several generations, all of them schooled in the Cape Town music scene. The most remarkable was Cameron John Ward, a 22 year old guitarist. During the two and a half hour, two set performance, Ward showed off a stunning stylistic range, commencing with a simple but lovely intro to the opening “Where He Leads,” evoking a George Benson-like vocalizing over his solos in “Mama,” and giving the audience the rich, sweet guitar licks we’ve come to associate with the South African sound in “Halese.” Ward was equally at home in the funky Afro-pop tunes, running the emotional gamut on the second set’s opening numbers, “The Boy” and “Chileshe,” bringing the crowd to its feet as he and Masekela shimmied down to the floor.
Masekela put together two thoughtfully constructed sets, starting out the first with soft, soulful tunes and then bringing the tempo up. An additional scheduled percussionist was absent, putting a bit more responsibility on drummer Lee-Roy Sauls, with Masekela putting down his horn and helping out on tambourines and cowbell. His most stirring moments came at the ends of both sets. In “Stimela,” aka “Coal Train,” Masekela told the story of African workers taking the train from all parts of the continent to find work in the South African mines. His evocation of the locomotive, using his rasping chant, whistle and cowbell portended not just the journey but its destination. The song then reached a crescendo with flugelhorn and guitar, and some nice keyboard backing by Randall Skippers.
Skippers and bassist Fana Zulu were content to stay in the background for much of the performance, but that changed in the second set, particularly in the last three numbers. Masekela’s international hit “Grazing in the Grass,” first recorded by him in 1968 from the pen of Philemon Hou, loses nothing over time from its infectious opening line. Masekela introduced it with the warm mid-tones of the flugelhorn; the audience was bouncing along with him from the first few notes. Electric bassist Zulu stepped up and delivered his one extended solo of the night and it was vibrant, the tones rich and full, supporting Masekela’s horn beautifully. Masekela’s solo seemed to sneak up behind Zulu, then he slipped aside to make room for Skippers. Over the evening Skippers, who played from a variety of electric keyboards, had ranged from a vibes-like sound, to synthesizer, to pure piano simulation. Now he fell into a lovely riff, weaving his way around the main chords, reaching back, ballad-like, for a stunning finish that literally stopped the show. With the audience silent, it was left for Masekela to pick up his horn and finish it off with a brief coda.
Masekela concluded the scheduled set with another flight of music and narrative. He related the story of his grandparents running the equivalent of a South African speakeasy — the native Africans being forbidden to drink alcohol with predictable consequences. The call “Khauleza” was a warning that the constables were coming, and Masekela had the audience repeating it, first tentatively and then with appropriate alacrity, and finally as chorus to the tune.
By this time most of the crowd had been liberated from their seats for good, without benefit of giant videoscreens or smart phones or anything else but Masekela and his band. When “Khauleza” had ended with closing solos from everyone, Royce Hall was clamoring for more. The encore brought folks into the aisles, dancing to “Ashiko,” then coalescing around the stage for a raucous sendoff. All and all, it was surely one of the highlights of the musical season.