Globe and Mail
By J.D. Considine
In the 42 years since he became an international sensation through Grazing in the Grass, Hugh Masekela has played many roles, from the strictly musical to the overtly political. Here are a few of the parts he played at the end of his North American tour Saturday.
“Hello, Toronto,” Masekela greeted the staid crowd at Koerner Hall. “Are you serious with that response?” Having seen news clips from the G20 Summit, Masekela said he knew that Torontonians were up for “a lot of trouble-making.”
“Don’t worry,” he added with a wink. “We’re on your side.”
A cross between Louis Armstrong and Robin Williams, Masekela manages to be simultaneously ingratiating and challenging, teasing the crowd while at the same time slipping in some very pointed commentary. For instance, after making light of how uptight some Torontonians can be — “You can tell they’ve never made noise before,” he joked, “not even in bed!” — he suggested that the next time they’re having a really good time, they think of those suffering due to natural disasters or oppressive governments.
Then he sang Stimela, about the coal train that brought generations of migrant workers to toil for a pittance in the mines of Johannesburg. It was catchy, horrifying and strangely uplifting. Even the uptight were smitten.
Masekela saved his political content for the last song of his first set. Prior to that, he kept the focus squarely on the music – singing (mostly in Zulu), playing flugelhorn or percussion, and even dancing as the spirit moved him.
This was, after all, a show, not a rally, and Masekela made sure everybody was having a good time before getting into the serious stuff. So he kept the opening numbers light, slipped a mention of Toronto into his disco-era hit The Boy’s Doin’ It, and cut loose with a spirited mbaqanga tune before appealing to the audience’s conscience.
However much Masekela was interested in making a point, he was even more eager to win the audience over. In other words, he’s more a showman than a polemicist, and that, ultimately, was what kept bringing the crowd to its feet. It helps that, at 71, he not only remains in full control of his instrument but also dances like a demon; it also can’t hurt that he’s a born comic.
When he sang Lady, an Afrobeat classic by the Nigerian firebrand Fela Kuti, he used body language to make plain that the song was a satire, almost a burlesque, something that made the meaning clear to those who couldn’t follow the semi-English lyrics. Even Fela couldn’t twist the knife so deftly.
As persuasive as he was when telling a joke or cajoling the crowd, Masekela was at his most eloquent when playing his hand-built silver flugelhorn. He’s not a flash player, emphasizing speed and high notes; like most South Africans, he’s more impressed by subtlety and wit, and his playing is full of both. In the lower register, his horn delivers the sweet, dark tone jazz fans normally associate with the flugelhorn, but in the upper reaches, his sound has the bright warmth of a cornet, so that his richly ornamented melodic lines almost shimmer against the insistence of the rhythm section.
His band, meanwhile, both supports his strengths and keeps him on his toes. Cameron Ward was an able foil, matching Masekela’s half-valved vocalizations with screaming, psychedelic guitar lines, while keyboardist Randal Skippers brought the crowd to its feet with a rollicking, gospel-inflected solo at the end of Grazing in the Grass.