By Simon Jenkins
The last time I heard the trumpeter and singer Hugh Masekela was at a New Year’s Eve party in 1990 on the slopes of Table Mountain. Nelson Mandela had recently been released and Masekela had returned from exile.
The hot night air blew in from False Bay, and conversation crackled with nervous anticipation of the year ahead. From the windows of the Cape Dutch Menell house at Glendirk, Masekela’s mournful flugelhorn wailed across the mountainside. It was not a cry of future liberation but an echo of past sadness and oppression. It was utterly beautiful.
That horn was no less beautiful on Wednesday night. At London’s Barbican the diminutive Masekela, now 68, picked up the entire London Symphony Orchestra, swirled it above his head and rammed it full of electricity. “It is not true,” he cried in delight, “that symphony orchestras can’t swing.” The concrete acres and bleak empty decks of the Barbican receded and the sandy-coloured wooden walls of the hall took on the shades of the bushveldt.
From student hostels, embassies and enclaves had emerged the capital’s African diaspora. They filled the hall, shouting, clapping, singing and weeping for their hero, Masekela. As he played the great anthem Morija-Maseru, and called out the names of Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia and Angola, cries of ecstatic recognition broke out from the audience. However briefly, he had brought today’s exiles home.
Masekela’s enterprise with the LSO was the brainchild of its remarkable director, Kathryn McDowell. She had not only to marry a jazz trumpeter to a symphony orchestra, which is no longer new, but also rearrange Masekela’s music for classical players, have them play with appropriate rhythm, and make use of the local St Luke’s community choir. Small wonder Masekela described the operation as “a hazardous trip” that had left him “scared stiff”.
He struck gold in his orchestral arranger, Jason Yarde, a Rastafarian Guyanan with a remarkable talent both as saxophonist and composer. In return, Masekela performed the premiere of Yarde’s concerto for trumpet and orchestra, an uplifting piece entitled All Souls Seek Joy. Yarde is a musician to watch. In his work, “world” meets jazz meets crossover to the point where such terms mean nothing. We are left with just glorious music.
Masekela, though an orthodox jazz trumpeter, embodies this phenomenon.
The son of educated parents, he learned the piano at school, but when he saw a film in which Kirk Douglas played Bix Beiderbecke he knew the trumpet was for him. “Discovered” by the anti-apartheid priest Trevor Huddleston, he was given an instrument and, still in his teens, formed the first African jazz band to record an album. After Sharpeville, Masekela left South Africa and went to London’s Guildhall school of music and then to study in Manhattan, fortunate in the patronage of such musicians as Menuhin, Dankworth, Belafonte and Gillespie. He briefly married his fellow emigre Miriam Makeba, and lived in various African countries before, on Mandela’s release in 1990, feeling able to return home.
Masekela looks like a mischievous but dignified imp. On Wednesday he stood in front of the august LSO, erect and immaculate in a black poncho, gently swaying to the rhythm in stylish contrast to the gauche jitterbugging of the young French conductor, Francois-Xavier Roth. He played old favourites Grazing in the Grass, Lizzy and Nomalizo, one of the few South African songs about love rather than oppression. “But when we do love,” remarked Masekela, “it is lethal: every song means babies.”
His signature piece remains Stimela, the Rock Island Line of the veldt. With a softly blown horn and a gravelly voice, Masekela tells of a steam train carrying migrant workers to the mines, the music elevated by Yarde into a crescendo of orchestral sound. Masekela dominated the stage, rendering the LSO little more than a backing group. He danced, swayed and strutted, imitating the migrants, the train driver, the conductor, the engine and even its whistle all in one. The audience rose from their seats and roared.