By David Honigmann
The veteran South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela turned 70 in April, and this concert was a belated birthday offering from the London Symphony Orchestra and its community choir. It fell into UBS’s Soundscapes season, so there were new compositions as well. The opener, “Rude Awakening”, was composed by Masekela’s arranger, the British saxophonist Jason Yarde. Floating, dreamy strings and reeds, interspersed with harp arpeggios, were ruptured by helter-skelter xylophone and panicky brass.
The other new composition Andrew McCormack’s “Incentive”, began spikily, with bows slapped on strings while the brass shrilled and shrieked: it built up energetically before backing up to its starting point.
Bagatelles aside, the main body of the concert was Masekela’s show. “Grazing In The Grass” saw him play its joyous circling riff, calling to the responses from the brass section. The flutes latched on to the riff and played it exquisitely quietly, over tuba and cowbell. Masekela smiled.
He played “Nomaliza”, which he had heard Miriam Makeba, his sometime wife, sing when she was a young starlet and he a precocious schoolboy. Yarde set it to lush Hollywood strings, with Masekela first sticking to the melody, then taking off around it while the trombones crooned.
A series of Southern African folk songs, bolstered by the community choir, were beefed up into anthems. “Nomathemba”, made popular by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, had its breathy catlike tread steamrollered into gospel triumphalism, with Masekela’s fluegelhorn fanfare bursting into life at the end.
The climax of the concert was “Stimela”, Masekela’s angry song about the steam trains that bring migrant workers from all over Southern Africa to work on the Reef. He whistled and grunted in vocalised audio documentary, interspersed with growling monologue. “Down, down, down in the belly of the earth,” he cried, his voice plunging like a mine elevator. Yarde played a plangent saxophone solo, followed by Masekela on fluegelhorn, fidgety, bitter, defiant. And then the evening finished, as it had to, with a real anthem: “Nkosi Sikelele” sung with a swing by the massed choir, better than any Happy Birthday.