Hugh Masekela at WOMADelaide – Review, Interview and Blog Excerpts
Caspar Llewellyn Smith
It was a fine way to celebrate a 21st birthday: blistering temperatures, beautiful surroundings and plenty to learn from your elders. Some of the leading perfomers at WOMADelaide in Adelaide’s Botanic Park were more than a match for their superannuated peers in the world of rock when it came to demonstrating that near-enough eligibility for a senior citizen’s card is no barrier to putting on a show. For my tastes, the 64-year-old Jimmy Cliff on Saturday night was a bit too much the showman – particularly with his version of Hakuna Matata from The Lion King – but his contemporary Salif Keita was spellbinding once his band found their groove earlier the same night.
Keita was one of three leading acts from Mali at the festival this year, with a focus on that country because of the political turmoil and jihadist uprising. Vieux Farka Touré may always struggle to escape the shadow of his father, the late Ali Farka Touré, but Bassekou Kouyaté – whose family have played the ngoni for generations – is already well on his way to becoming a true star. His son, Mustafa, is in his band now, and took an impressive solo during their performance on the main stage on Friday night; but the look on his face later when his old man let rip with his instrument, making liberal use of his wah-wah pedal, told its own story. Like everyone in the audience, he just puffed out his cheeks as if to say “Woah!”.
Bassekou and co were busy playing throughout the weekend – plus there was an appearance from his wife (and vocalist in the group) Amy at the Taste the World stage, where acts show off their cooking skills, one of the measures of WOMADelaide’s civilised demeanour. I especially liked the sound of Novalima’s ceviche, and the band of expat Peruvians also excelled on the third stage on Sunday afternoon. Likewise Brooklyn-based Afrobeat outfit Antibalas on Saturday, whose performance was perhaps especially charged because singer Amayo had heard the news the night before that his mother had passed away in his native Lagos; and also Moriarty, a band from France whose parents mostly came from the US, and who sound like they come from the backroads, somewhere way off any interstate.
It was, as well, a joy to get a sense of the rich diversity of musical life in this corner of the planet. The festival began with a traditional kaurna greeting from Stevie Goldsmith and dancers and encompassed a bluesy-take on Aboriginal music from East Journey, who come from the Yirrkala community in North East Arnhem Land; also a performance from Sing Sing, involving acts from across Oceania; vibrant Aussie hip-hop from the Herd; and two of the most talked-about acts in the country.
If Stevie Goldsmith represents a tradition that is several millennia old, Melbourne band the Cat Empire who headlined the main stage on Friday night may well stand for the future, with their kitchen-sink appropriation of genres from around the globe, including hip-hop, reggae and salsa. Similarly brave, in their own way, were funk-soul champions the Bamboos on Sunday, who’ve added a bit of gnarled rock to their schtick thanks to guest frontman Tim Rogers. Both acts drew vast crowds in the relative cool of the evening (it was still sticky in the pitch dark).
With more than 470 performers from 26 countries appearing over the course of the four days, any review could only scratch the surface of WOMADelaide: there was also the much talked about “Blank Page”, performance art from the Compagnie Luc Amoros (looked good, even if the political messaging was a bit gauche); lots of buzz for the electro-swing of UK act the Correspondents (not to my taste, alas); the rock of the delicate-looking Algerian singer Souad Massi (inviting some dangerous-looking dancing as temperatures touched 40 degrees on Sunday afternoon); and Balkan swagger of that evening’s headliner Goran Bregovic.
Bregovic came within a whisker of stealing the weekend. The Marco Pierre White lookalike is a masterful chef d’orchestre, as they say in other parts of the world; he looked like the boss man in his immaculate silver suit, but stay seated for most of his by turns moving and then uproarious performance, letting his superb 18-piece band – involving, I think, a mixture of authentic Gypsy players such as the Kosovan refugee goc drummer Muharem Redzepi and conservatory pros including saxophonist Stojan Dimovget – get on with it. But for the odd moment when he did calm things down – as with a rendition of his hilarious In the Death Car – he mesmerised, too.
Someone at the festival (was it the band Moriarty?) said that Adelaide has the highest number of serial killers per head of population in the world. I don’t know about that. But on the basis of the dancing as Bregovic’s set came to a close, there were certainly plenty of bona fide nutters there.
Best of all for this reviewer, though, as previously described, was Hugh Masekela, who headlined on Saturday, but also hung around the festival site all weekend, giving a talk in Speakers Corner and guesting on the Monday with the Soweto Gospel Choir. He showed with his own performance how he has learned to entertain over the years – busting some dance moves, playing famous songs such as Stimela, talking about the environment (“Let’s make a resolution that when we see someone shitting on nature, we’re going to say ‘get off the pot!'”); but it’s when he blows softly on his horn that the real magic is there.
“Not too bad for a boy from a shebeen,” he said at one point, talking about his career and the distance it stretches from the township in South Africa in which he was born in 1939 – a phrase that might have served notice on his performance. But better came at the very end, when in the heat, he showed more effortless cool. The compere urged further applause “for a real legend”, and the 73-year-old, already half-off stage, yelled back: “No one’s a legend!”
Hugh Masekela – what I’m thinking about … a crisis for African culture
It is said that 11 of the world’s 20 fastest growing economies are in Africa, but when you talk about the economy, who are you talking about? The rich will benefit but the poor will always remain poor. In China, the economy is booming, but the poverty rate there is appalling; the US economy is the biggest in the world, but poverty there is appalling, too. So when you talk to me about the economy, in my mind that translates as “the establishment”. The ones who run the economy, the ones who own it, are the ones who benefit from it.
In my view, Africa’s real problems are cultural. In 20 years from now, when people ask my grandchildren who they are, they’ll say “it is rumoured that we used to be Africans – long ago”. I’m very interested in heritage restoration, and I’m working with a group of people to create a number of academies and performance spaces to encourage native arts and crafts and to explore African history.
I’ve got to where am in life not because of something I brought to the world but through something I found – the wealth of African culture.
Africa was not only conquered, but in conquest, through the imposition of new religions and the misunderstanding of the aims of education, and later on through advertising, Africans were manipulated into thinking that their own heritage is backward: primitive, pagan, heathen, barbaric. We need a renaissance to celebrate the wealth of diversity that really exists. Now, a renaissance is very expensive, but you don’t have to force a thing on people who already own it, you just have to make the space for it to show it off – you let it grow from there. If there’s going to be cultural advancement, it’s going to have to come from the people themselves, but they have to be helped.
It’s obvious that the rest of the world loves high African culture – African culture, period. Just look at a festival like WOMADelaide. But when people come to Africa they can’t find it that easily because the African establishment has no interest in celebrating it. Governments in Africa – most governments, in fact – are allergic to this because they don’t want to be upstaged. And it’s to the benefit of international industry that the people of Africa remain an underclass – so they won’t take ownership of the raw materials themselves. But if Africans recapture their culture they will naturally gravitate towards recapturing the continent. If they know more of who they are, they might not be willing to be so subservient.
It’s not just Africa’s problem; most of the world now has disappeared into laptops and iPhones and iPads. People think think that when they have these gadgets they are advancing.
Technology keeps changing the world, but music doesn’t change, it’s only 12 notes and six chords and it’ll always be that. It’s how they’re juggled that makes great music and great musicians study that, whether it’s Palestrina or Bach or Fela [Kuti]. But if you’re into the dark glasses and chicks with their asses in the air and in your face … I don’t know how much of it is music.
People talk to me about the rise of hip hop in Africa, too, but nothing that mechanical will last. The people look alike, and they’re wearing the same outfits, and they’re singing variations or rapping variations of the same thing. And yet the Hawaiians and the Indians sing variations of the same scales, but in there are beautiful songs, beautiful melodies. Anything that comes organically from people, musically, is what will last for ever. But what depends on a machine will always depend upon a machine. Until a bigger machine comes.
“Day 2 of WOMADelaide began with a talk from Hugh Masekela at the Speakers Corner stage. This is Caspar Llewellyn Smith again.
I’d actually bumped into the 73-year old last night, and asked whether he’d ever met Archie Shepp, the radical late 60s saxophonist, simply because I’ve been listening to his oeuvre recently. And of course Masekela had: “I knew Archie well … I never liked his music.” That led to a discussion about his close friend Miles Davis, which included a great Miles impersonation and the view that Miles lost the plot when he ventured into that Sly Stone/ Stockhausen thing of his in the early 70s. “I told him I’d come see him play again when he started playing music again.”
On this Saturday morning, in a front of a crowd desperately fanning themselves in the sticky heat, he was at it again, a little bit, casually mentioning his friendship with Bob Marley, for instance. But he can’t help it if he’s known and worked with several of the greats, because he is one himself, and a measure of that was his insistence here, talking of politics, that “the ordinary person is the hero of every society. In a place like South Africa, the real heroes are the unknown people”.
It was also a delight to hear Masekela talk about the importance to him of his school geography lessons: “we learnt how to draw the outline of every country, their physical features .. their products, their climate” etc, which, he complained doesn’t happen any more. It meant that when he left South Africa after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and started his peripatetic existence that continues to this day – he has homes in South Africa, Ghana and California, though as he told me “I live in airports and hotels and festivals” – nowhere he went felt foreign to him.
“I don’t recognise borders,” he told the audience, but talked about the vital cultural traditions of Africa. “If there were no Africans in America, it wouldn’t be the place it is today – they’d still be wearing white wigs. Without Louis Armstrong, they’d still be walking straight, without a dip in their hip.” (Masekela, of course, once knew Armstrong too.)”