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Bra Hugh Vouches for African Unity

Ghana Inauguration

21 January 2017
Sowetan Live
Lesley Mofokeng


I ask Bra Hugh if he’s on Twitter. He replies: “No, but I’m on Whatsapp.” I’m defeated.

He notices my disappointment and we burst out in laughter.

He may not be as tech-savvy and on top of social media trends as I would like him to be, and at 77 it’s kind of understandable. But Hugh Masekela is not shy to express himself.

We begin our quick chat in the comfort of his offices in chic Parkhurst, Johannesburg north. He’s just got back from Ghana where he performed at the inauguration of the new president Nana Akufo-Addo.

“He’s an old friend that I met through Fela [Kuti] in the 70s, because he was Fela’s lawyer. And I’ve watched him for 40 years aspire for this office because his passion for Ghana is so deep, and it’s a pleasure to finally see him get it.

“He lost twice in the last 10 years, the last time he lost by 20000 votes, but now he won by a million and half votes. Sometimes patience helps.”

Masekela is one of the greatest living musicians of our time, and he continues to release music. His newest is No Borders. He makes no apologies for being a proponent of Africa without borders.

“The music speaks for itself. You can feel geographically where we are most of the time. I’m very obsessed with cancelling the borders in people’s minds and let them get a sense of who they are.

“The Hugh Masekela Heritage Foundation does work in the historical space. Our people don’t know anything about themselves.

“Cancelling borders in our heads and nationalism will help us to get rid of xenophobia, especially if we knew our history because most of us re makwerekwere (we are foreigners) historically. I tell people when I’m on stage that us, the Masekelas taught the Batlokwa how to till the land, but originally we are the Munyepawu and come from Zimbabwe.

“Even in our praise singing it’s there.”

The album is an eclectic mix of sounds and influences, a nomadic journey from Cape to Cairo, Dakar to Addis.

He recorded Been Such A Long Time Gone first some 40 years ago on the album I’m Not Afraid, which had the original Stimela and The Marketplace.

“It’s like a trip from the desert right down. At the end it says right across the river Limpopo white soldiers standing in the road, then pop goes my dream, but I didn’t put that in because that was an apartheid reference.”

Congo Woman, is a delightful tribute to the DRC, the land of a thousand dances. In it he celebrates the dances – kwassa kwassa, rumba and others.

“I was inspired by Papa Wemba. There is a great album of his called Bakala Di A Kuba. In it he has this song where he sings with four other Congolese and they exchange parts, so I called my nephew and Kabomo and Tresor to put in the Congolese feel.”

Other feature are JSomething on Heaven In You, Oliver Mtukudzi on Tapera and Themba Mokoena on The Rooster and KwaZulu. It is produced by Kunle Ayo

Perhaps his most important recording is In An Age with his son Selema, known as Alekesam in Hollywood.

“He’s been a musician since he was a kid. When he started school he played the clarinet, the saxophone and has always been able to sing. He got together with Sunny Levin, who is my best friend’s son and they formed a group and Sunny wrote the song and they asked me to rap on it and put something in an African language, so I chose a Tswana verse.

“I’d like this album to have an impact on whoever is listening to it, a curiosity about Africa, and African history and the whole borders situation. It should awaken interest about our origins. And I hope they enjoy the music.”

In three months Masekela turns 78.

“I feel very fortunate. I was bewitched with music when I was a child and I ended up living in it. I never planned to get where I am today. I just went into it for the passion. And it brought me halfway around the world a few times.

He is thankful to have met some of the greatest people in the world thanks to his music.

“I was helped by a lot of people, especially Miriam, Father Huddleston, and Belafonte, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. I was able to go to exile for 30 years and still come back home to see the change and the freedom of our people.

“I think we are in a disappointing era in our lives. What we hoped for for our freedom is not really taking place. I really hope everyone had the chances and opportunities that you and I have, at least to live a half a decent life. The truth is that the majority of our people are poor.”



No Borders


Press Release
2 November 2016

World renowned trumpet and flugelhorn legend, Hugh Masekela returns with a fiery 44th album entitled ‘No Borders’.

Encompassing socio-political commentary, solid dance floor grooves and tender love songs, the 16 tracks move effortlessly through continental styles taking in Nigerian Afro-Beat, Congolese Kwassa Kwassa and South African Masqandi. From the opening angry salvo of “Shuffle and Bow” which evokes the American South and old plantation songs, to the haunting collaboration with Oliver Mtukudzi, “Tapera”, Bra Hugh shows that he’s lost none of his fire.

Recorded over a period of 9 months with producer Kunle Ayo, No Borders is a vibrant, bold and entertaining journey across various musical genres, featuring extraordinary collaborations. On the track “In an Age” Bra Hugh teams up for the first time with his US based son, Salema Masekela (AKA Alekesam), and the combination is thrilling. This song is also notable for Bra Hugh’s wild Zulu rap and was recorded in Los Angeles under the production guidance of Sunny Levine who also produced “One of These Days”. In another family connection, Sunny is the son of renowned producer, and Hugh’s long time friend and collaborator, Stewart Levine.

No Borders also includes the popular feel good summer single “Heaven in You” featuring J Something of Mi Casa and other tracks feature notable guests such as legendary South African guitarist, Themba Mokoena and Congolese singer, Tresor.

The album cover art shows a defiant Masekela showing off a pre-colonial map of Africa where no borders are represented, a state of affairs that is close to Bra Hugh’s heart. It is this theme that fuels the album’s pan-African feel, sound and vision.

At the age of 77 Bra Hugh is still blowing strong. No Borders looks set to return Bra Hugh to the top of the international charts.

Serious Presents Hugh Masekela & Larry Willis



Press Release

“Damn, do they swing!” **** Rolling Stone

Tuesday 5 November | SOUTHAMPTON Turner Sims |
Sunday 10 November | OXFORD St. John the Evangelist Church |
Monday 11 November | NOTTINGHAM Lakeside | SOLD OUT
Wednesday 13 November | MANCHESTER RNCM |
Thursday 14 November | BRISTOL St. George’s |
Friday 15 November | LONDON Royal Festival Hall |
Saturday 16 November | BIRMINGHAM Town Hall |

A rare opportunity to experience the intimate side of South African maestro Hugh Masekela, in a sumptuously lyrical series of duets with master pianist Larry Willis, revisiting a long friendship stretching back to their days together at college in New York in the 60s.

Hugh Masekela, one of the most important figures in South African music, is also one of its biggest personalities, who has been performing, recording, and fighting apartheid for over five decades, and has worked with the Who’s Who of South African and international musicians.

“A musician of phenomenal grace and power; intricate and fiery on flugelhorn and still blessed with a voice that can strip the leaves from the trees.” The Independent

Larry Willis has long been a force on the New York jazz scene. His bold, frenetic, and ambitious playing found a home in the free jazz scene and also landed Willis recording dates with Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, and Stan Getz. A long-time devotee of Herbie Hancock, Willis later moved into jazz-rock and fusion, and joined forces with Hugh for their celebrated earlier coalition, Almost Like Being in Jazz.

Their new release Friends is a masterpiece of chamber jazz combined with the sheer exuberance of the Masekela style. These concerts, based on the music of the Friends album, showcase the virtuosity and immense emotional capacity of both artists.

The London show has been moved from the Queen Elizabeth Hall to the Royal Festival Hall because the QEH concert was completely sold out.


London-based performance poet, writer and musician Zena Edwards will be playing an opening set on all these dates, premiering a new work commissioned by the PRS For Music Foundation’s Women Make Music fund.

“Zena fuses the raw elements of urban experiences and expresses them through individualised rhythms of hip hop and jazz.” BBC Radio 1

Rolling Stone Review of ‘Playing At Work’


Hugh Masekela: Dr Funk-Einstein

Rolling Stone
Bongani Madondo

Rock’n’roll wild man, jazz veteran, agent provocateur, the inde-funkable Hugh Masekela digs back to his funk journey with his record, ‘Playing @ Work’. Bongani Madondo, who had given up on hearing any surprises in Hughie’s work, is forced to eat his notebooks and bow before the Master at Work.

With over six decades at the Coalface of his calling – for this is not a “career” … something sinisterly persuasive, something that doesn’t ask your permission before swallowing your life and the lives of your beloveds – there just aren’t any creative spaces Hugh Masekela has not explored.

His latest album, Playing @ Work, is a primer of an artist in full control of the fact that he cannot really be fully in control of where his creative demons take him – that’s if being fully in control means sticking to the tried-and-tested, same ol’ style his die-hard fans love to pigeonhole him in. But, like his fellow late-night crawlers and debauched pals, Miles “Dewey III” Davis and Jimi Hendrix, Masekela is notorious for bucking the trend, altering your listening sensibilities, kicking a buck’ of cold water on your face, flooring you with his horn, and waking the goddamned out of you.


In other words, Hughie just doesn’t give a funk if you rock or roll with him – so long as you listen, he’ll surely rearrange everything else you were certain you knew about him. There’s not much he has not done, recorded, played live, imagined, discarded, embraced or dreamt of in this biz: from street performance, recorded albums, musicals, film scores, and so on. With a his-“story” of playing with everyone – Herb Alpert, Miriam Makeba, Fela, Hedzoleh Soundz – to stage invitations to rock, with outfits such as U2, The Rolling Stones, up to latter-day township prog-punks Blk Jks and experimental collaborations with dance stalwarts such as Thandiswa Mazwai and Black Coffee, Masekela’s space, time and influence defies even his much-celebrated versatility. Masekela is timeless. Generations that, seemingly, have no direct links with each other have watched, dealt with, enjoyed – as well as engaged with – the artist remaking not only himself, but his art, while remaining true to his roots: a dynamic African musician for all seasons.

That’s Hughie for you.

From stylistic demands of several genres such as mbaqanga to funk, jazz, soul, house and back, Hugh Masekela traverses all with acute understanding, open ear and respect, and is not only dynamic and creatively receptive, but rare within a modern sphere of artistic creation.

Masekela is not a versatile artist. He is versatility itself. He is in fact Music, itself: as in, the sound and creative turmoil responsible for that which he is known for – Music. All transformative music, by its nature, and all alchemists practising the gift of “ngoma” (that is the art of making a “song”, thus making all songs creators as “aba”-Ngoma, the Healers), can go any which way at any time.

In his life, art, speech, mannerisms, gait and, if you know him, laughter and style, Hughie is all music. He is not about, or for, music. He is Music! Because of that, because we relate to him as we would relate to that which he creates, we react to him the way we re- act to music – an omnipresent force or act of nature in our lives.

We react to him in the way we would react to the air we breathe: that is, we don’t react as much as breathe it. We take for granted that it’s there and that without it there’s no life. We react to him in the ways we would react to the food we ingest into our bodies to sustain us. We hold him as the soul-force and the trip through which we strive for renewal. We appreciate and have rendered him part of who we are as a people in the way we do with personal and collective prayers, and meditative trips we take. We feel him with the same knowledge that we cannot avoid the daily grind of problems, sorrows and sadness – the Blues, to wit. But we also hear him to be the sound of triumphs and glories we are transformed by.

It becomes easy then, to get used to Hughie, in the same manner that folks get used to life while, of course, never ever getting used to death. In that sense, the person Ramapolo “Hugh” Masekela (child and grandchild of amaNdebele) and the music of the celebrated “Bra” Hughie – the international musical polyglot, composer, musical director, trumpeter, band leader and writer – has become part of who we are.

All well and good, but we should also refuse to get used to him as an artist, for artists, especially boundary-pushing, innovative, restless spirits such as Masekela, are never the same as they were yesterday, and you just don’t know what tomorrow might do with them, or what they will do tomorrow. Take his latest offering, Playing @ Work. Prior to listening to it, one might get apprehensive simply because you just have no idea what this Done-It-All has to say anymore – if he has anything more to say. And then it just hits you in all the right places … and then some!

Hugh Masekela’s latest record is a double disc of innovative, classical, reworked and freshly- composed music that largely sets, implores and beckons you onto the dance floor, while, in typical Masekela manner, slaps you bang across the heart with his incendiary and unifying, socially- conscious message.

The first disc packs strong-and-warm, but alert-and-alive music. Masekela is just incapable of creating music that just leaves you in peace. No, he is not a “peaceful” artist, if by peace you expect art for art’s sake. Not that he eschews creating music for the sheer pleasure of it; he does, although even when he does that. somehow the music is incapable of just leaving you alone.

On Disc 1, the song “Africa Hold Hands” serves as an establishing shot. And what a visual shot it proposes! The message – more a pan-African call for unification than just a simple reactionary “anti-xenophobic” reaction – is wrapped in a work of persuasive musicality and execution. For a few minutes, the song opens with playful piano chops, so clean, so taut, so direct that for a minute you think it’s a piece entirely redolent with strings in that Rex-Rabanye-township-string tradition, for the piano lingers a little longer with the clever precision, or editing, that introduces the song’s entire instrumental blast. Led by a cheeky and groove-riding bass, this is funk – Afro-funk if you will – for who do you know that’s phonkier than Hughie, albeit a different performance of funk altogether. It is mbaqanga funk quite distinct to South Africa. Synchronised and cooked together, the music is catchy, warm … hip-swivellingly touchy as well. The energy is reminiscent of Masekela’s longest and highest international charting song of all time – “Grazing In The Grass” – or at least a sample of it as used in the Hollywood Black Power biopic of Pete Green, Talk To Me. With this song, you are sucked into an imaginary climate … conjuring images of summer with communities playing communal drumming at dusk and children playing khati, and so on.

Well, it don’t stop – Hughie won’t stop there.

Building on the intensity of the opening track, he risks everything and throws caution to the wind with Track 2: a remake of Bob Dy- lan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. The original piece by the “Village Poet” Dylan was included in his 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home, the title itself an allusion to a blues and gospel idiom, as well as emotional quest, which, sung by Dylan, immediately assumed a staggering social import.

In this latest interpretation, Masekela renders Dylan probably at his funkiest ever since his own “Changing of the Guards” (1978) from the album Street Legal and “Blind Willie McTell” from Bootleg Series, Vol 3. In English: Bob Dylan has never sounded so urgent, so tomorrow, so funky, so down ‘n greasy, and yet so hopeful. The song is fuller, rounder, edgier, and the musicality (its balladry); the quality of the recording itself is more filling, and gives off more pronounced textures and colours. While the music is more up-beat, the chorus, delivered by choir-like back-up singers, gifts the song with renewed shape altogether – what Americans refer to as “audacity”, sometimes. So much so that the song you heard has almost no resemblance to Dylan’s song.

This is a Hugh Masekela song and its aural density and African spirit will remind of exactly that; that is, were we to have visitations of doubt. In Masekela’s hands it also morphs into a dance piece, without losing its poignancy. How Hughie, the musical director in his own right, does this, beats me. Must be the years running around with those West Africans! (This is said in the jesting tradition and, as backhanded compliment to Ghanaian and Nigerian music’s intra-wired funk and dance roots, and never pejorative.)

As though the introductory bleeds too much groove, he segues into “Soul Rebel”, a paean to his onetime pal, the Jamaican-born international Africa social soul brother No. 1 – Robert Nesta Marley: His Royal Bobness!

Other compositions such as “Makotopong”, the name of Masekela’s current recording home outside of Pretoria, and “Perlemoen” round up a very satisfying Side A of this double-whammy.

Side B (or Disc 2) is no walkover, though.

Although, musically, it continues both the mbaqanga-jazz-dance fusion (for both traditionalists and cyber-age hipsters) it also, and subtly, continues with Masekela’s celebration of his peers and seers who held the game long before we were born; the songs here give it an identity all its own. So it is as much a stand-alone as it is a continuation of the journey from Disc 1.

Although the entirety of this Side B is framed in tight and economic delivery, the overwhelm- ing feel here is of assured jazzier pathways: you can say, if you dare, that Hughie is going back to what made him such a force to be reckoned with in the first place: African roots synthesised with jazz. Hughie steals the whole thing from Theory and puts flesh to it so that, in his music, you get to appreciate in real time what is meant by jazz as an African art-form. The tempo here is slightly and deceptively slower, the instrumentation and singing cleaner and nuanced. This time around, funk gives way to a jazz with a gospel or soul twist.

Although the most emotionally poignant centrepiece of the entire disc is the melancholic groove and bass beauty found in “Where He Leads Me”, the song that might just turn out to be the most associated with this two-disc smacker is Masekela’s 1970s composition, which he never performed though it was made popular by the late Miriam Makeba: “Soweto Blues”.

Now I believe Masekela might yet prove to be the master remix visionary of our time, and by “remix” we do not imply the house music DJ tag of an artist who resamples and remixes several classics with contemporary computer-digitised beats. His ingenuity, almost sharing the same ethos as the young house DJs, lies in his ability to fuse new energy into a classic or older piece of work: updating it, rebuilding it, recoating it, while carrying something about it that made it a classic in the first place. And that’s what he does here with “Soweto Blues”.

The song showcases the spirited – defiant, even – voice of Phuthuma, as well as small choral back- up that recalls both Makeba and Sarafina! the musical’s unmitigated defiance. Here, we listen in awe and nod our heads as the young woman rises up to dispense lessons – again on unity. She scorns ethnicity, brings our attention to the ills of society across ethnicities. She sings with the breathing technique of a time-keeping drummer, so that when she’s comfortable knowing she’s got our at- tention, immediately and without changing, playing to the gallery or her studio producer’s approval, she draws us into a stirring gospel rendition of a classic African song.

Phuthuma’s coaxing, defiance and pride are, in the way Masekela easy-does it, accentuated by great accompaniment, experience, love and just the ol’ playful declaration of love for the muse. This time around, the art of music creating itself, more than any other subject matter, serves as Hugh’s most reliable muse and trustworthy guide. The same spirit washes over the double album.

With this offering (and, hey, who knows?) possibly inspired by renewed vigour, Masekela creamed off his award-winning and internationally-touring Songs of Migration musical, reminding us why we imagined and wished to own him, breathe him; how we have internalised him, sung him and sung with him in the first place.

With this album, he gives us that which has been lost or died within us: hope, vitality, defiance, beauty and currency. What else could you ask from any artist?

* * *


Contributing Artists:

Ramapolo Hugh Masekela – Flugel Horn and Vocals
Fana Zulu – Bass
Cameron John Ward – Guitar
Randal Skippers – Keyboards
Lee-Roy Sauls – Drums

Featured Artists
Complete Vocal Quartet

Producer: Hugh Masekela

Engineer: Garrick van der Tuin

Studio: House of Masekela – Makotopong

Mixed by: Stewart Levine

Mastered by: Bernie Grundman

Release Date: November 2012

Label: House of Masekela

Distributed by: Sheer Sound

Executive Producer: Pius Mokgokong

This is an article from the April 2013 issue of Rolling Stone South Africa. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

Playing @ Work Review by Afropolitan

Photo by Brett Rubin

Hugh Masekela – Playing @ Work

the afropolitan
Brenda Nyakudya

For more than six decades flugelhorn, cornet player and vocal legend Hugh Ramopolo Masekela has been producing music that feeds the soul.

From his humble beginnings in Witbank, South Africa, Hugh Masekela has not just made music for entertainment; he has been an agent of social and political change as he used his art to tell stories of pain and suffering during the dark days of apartheid. From his early career days with the Jazz Epistles to 2013 he has become a world-renowned artist, a vocal social commentator and an international icon. Hugh, affectionately known as Bra Hugh, is one of the few African artists to get mention at the Grammy Awards, when he was nominated in 1968 for the Best Contemporary Pop Performance for his album ‘Grazin’ in the Grass’.

His latest album, good-humouredly titled ‘Playing @ Work’, is a double CD offering, and Masekela’s 43rd album — and is just as fresh as his earlier work! The first disc is upbeat and opens with the track ‘Africa Hold Hands’ which is a clear and much needed call for Pan-African unity. The next track takes you on a different journey bringing in a total remake of the Bob Dylan 1965 classic, ‘It’s all over now, Baby Blues’, presenting it in his own Hugh Masekela African style. Soul Rebel is a passionate ode to a “fighter of human rights”, Bob Nester Marley and shows innovation as it fuses Afro-funk with a reggae twist.

The second disc brings in the Hugh Masekela of old; the jazz maestro who won his way into audiences’ heart with his trumpet. Featuring local artist Pu2ma on a track that was Miriam Makeba’s 70s hit ‘Soweto Blues’ was genius as she transforms it into a powerfully melodic beat. The rest of the album continues in the classical jazz tones with a bit of funk, soul and gospel thrown in for good measure.

Any fan of Bra Hugh will be pleased with this album as it shows that the musical master still has a few tricks up his sleeve and continues to make music to please.

Did You Know

Hugh Masekela serves as director on the board of The Lunchbox Fund, an establishment that works to ensure that school-going children in Soweto are provided a meal every day.

Hugh Masekela and Bob Dylan shared a producer (Tom Wilson) in the 1960s.

British priest, Trevor Huddleston, allegedly financed Masekela’s first trumpet.

Playing @ Work Review by The Citizen


Hugh Masekela – Playing @ Work

The Citizen Online
Kulani Nkuna

Bra Hugh Masekela is back in his melodic popular jazz element with this album, which sounds like it was recorded in a jovial setting.
RATING: 7/10

Even with songs that have serious messages, like Africa Hold Hands, Masekela plays with the arrangements, creating songs that could easily be enjoyed at a wedding or party but in which he tackles issues such as xenophobia and pan-Afri-canism. Vocals play a huge role, with sharp lyrics that tell stories of years and years of knowledge and experience.

Go Look Out For Mama is a soulful meditation and speaks of the balance to be found in this album. Masekela has made his name long ago and he now makes his music with a great awareness of self and what he stands for.

He is simply playing at work, as the title suggests.

Rolling Stone Reviews Friends

Photograph by Jennifer Wheatley/Geotribe

Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis: Friends – Review

Rolling Stone
Miles Keylock

Rolling Stone: 4 Stars

“We all do ‘do, re, mi’, but you have to find the other notes yourself,” advised Louis Armstrong. Bra Hugh’s been exploring those other notes since Satchmo sent him his first horn back in the ’50s. After six decades spent trying to prove his so-called jazz credentials to tone-deaf critics, Masekela’s finally smiling. At 73, he doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone. But here he is, hooking up with longtime buddy Larry Willis to swing through a set of 40 straight-ahead jazz standards. That’s right: a four-CD set. And damn, do Masekela and Willis swing. The opening quartet disc featuring Victor Masondo (bass) and Leroy Sauls (drums) eases the listener straight into the sentimental mood with a lilting rendition of “Body and Soul” and a groovelaced take on Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” prepping the path for a “’Round Midnight” reading of Thelonious’ “Monk’s Mood”. The rest of the triple play is a chance for Hughie and Larry to celebrate their love for the Great American Songbook – from breathtakingly beautiful ballad improvisations (Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy”, Ellington’s “Come Sunday”) and sprightly call-and-response conversations (“The Days of Wine and Roses”) to old-timey Tin Pan Alley folk croons (Hoagy Cramichael’s “Rocking Chair”). Of course, Hugh isn’t just any horn man. He knows what pops. So he woos the ladies with a muted Miles-style makeover of Michel Legrand’s Thomas Crown Affair theme come-on “The Windmills of Your Mind”. Then completes the consummation by bleeding the melody from Bread’s ’70s soft-rock smash “If” into Sammy Cahn and Charlie Chaplin’s “Until the Real Thing Comes Along”!

Friends Album Launch Review


A Set for Jazz Aficionados

Edward Tsumele

Hugh Masekela is mainly known, particularly in this country, as an Afro-jazz artist who melds his native South African folk sound with American jazz-tinged music, achieving a unique flavour.

Well, that is one side of the man who honed his skills and sound in the Sophiatown of the 1960s.

There is, however, another side to this man, whose travels around the world from Europe to North America are perhaps as regular as travelling from Johannesburg to Cape Town for some of us. He is a serious jazz muso, well educated in the tradition of the genre in the West, particularly in the US, where he lived in exile for many years.

Masekela has released a four-CD set comprising mainly reworked and reinterpreted American standards, which certainly demonstrates his jazz side.

The CD, which he launched at Old Mutual on the Square, Sandton, to an audience composed mainly of those in the know when it comes to jazz, is testimony to the man’s versatility and his mastery of US jazz standards that are usually only achieved by jazz musicians of the highest order.

Having been educated at the famed Manhattan School of Music, where he met the likes of internationally renowned pianist Larry Willis. The two recorded the CD in South Africa last year after sharing the stage at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

The new CD was first launched to critical acclaim in New York last month and the local launch, which was attended by among others his sister Barbara Masekela, the former SA high commissioner to France, his daughter Pula, comedians David Kibuuka and Loyiso Gola, was an intoxicating affair that had the audience eating out of the legend’s hand.

While I saw a number of nods among the crowd in appreciation of what Masekela and Willis have done on the CD, I wonder if it is the kind of album that would endear itself to those who are still wet behind the ears when it comes to jazz.

They might find Friends a bit heavy.

Hugh Masekela Launches Latest Album – Friends

Photograph by Jonx Pillemer

Bra Hugh blows in at 73

Mail and Guardian
Atiyyah Khan

Photograph by Jonx Pillemer

It has been a huge week for Hugh Masekela. Not only did he celebrate his 73rd birthday, but fresh from his performance at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, he launched a new album and a record label.

The album, Friends, which launched on Sunday at the ­Mahogany Room in Cape Town, is a four-CD box set featuring Masekela and American pianist Larry Willis. It is a collection of 40 American jazz standards reinterpreted by the two musicians, whose friendship dates back more than 50 years, hence the title. Willis was in the country for the launch.

The quiet intimacy of the launch was in stark contrast to Masekela’s jiving performance at the jazz festival the previous night, where he was joined by Vusi Mahlasela, Thandiswa Mazwai and Zolani Mahola, playing to thousands in a special tribute to the late Miriam Makeba.

As people squeezed into the Mahogany Room, which at capacity seats 50, Masekela said: “It might be a small premiere, but it feels like a helluva one.”

He is a great storyteller and, from the start, enthralled the crowd with gems of detail. “We met in 1961 at the ­Manhattan School of music. I had just turned 21. We both loved music and were drawn to each other. Larry was an opera singer and he was dressed like George Washington. I looked at him and asked: “Man, what are you doing?!” Masekela found out that Willis played piano and they spent afternoons in the Bronx performing together.

“We’ve recorded together over the years. But we haven’t managed to get rid of each other,” he said, followed by deep laughter.

“We’re going to do the compositions that affected our lives,” he said, and with that, the two began a journey that delved into their history. The set consisted of Hi-Fly by Randy Weston, Easy Living made famous by Billie Holiday, Fats Waller’s Until the Real Thing Comes Along and Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday. Each song told a new story. About soul group the Stylistics’ song You Make Me Feel Brand New, Masekela said: “I said to Larry, ‘It’s an old R’n’B song’, but he said, ‘We’re going to play it because it’s pretty.'”

He continued: “The most unforgettable person in the world of music, aside from Miriam Makeba, is a man who never finished a paragraph without mentioning New Orleans. If it weren’t for him, we’d all be wearing white wigs,” and he headed into When It’s Sleepy Time Down South by Louis ­Armstrong.

Almost like jazz

The set ended with Masekela singing one of his favourite songs, Hoagy Carmichael’s 1929 hit Rockin’ Chair.

When Masekela first recorded in the United States, music critic Leonard Feather said: “Hugh Masekela can’t play jazz”. “I told Miles Davis this and he said: “As long as Feather spells your name right, don’t give a shit about anything else,” he said. The album Almost like being in jazz, which ­featured Willis, was ­Masekela’s response.

Last year, Rashid Lombard, the chief executive of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, organised for Willis to perform at the festival. This coincided with Masekela’s nephew, Pius Mokgokong, building a studio on his farm in Pretoria and hence Friends was recorded there. Willis made six trips to the country to record the album.

Mokgokong initially built the studio at his home to practise music, but then decided to create a professional studio. When Masekela first visited it in 2010, he said: “Uncle, I’m going to dedicate this thing to you.” The album is the first to be released through the new record label, House of Masekela, of which Mokgokong is executive producer.

“Jazz artists die poor. We want to invest money in our musicians and make sure they benefit from their art,” Mokgokong said.

Friends is available countrywide and a Johannesburg launch of the album will be announced soon.

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Jabulani Review NPR Music


Hugh Masekela: Wedding Songs That Don’t Sound Blue

NPR Music
Milo Miles

In 1968, Hugh Masekela was not quite 30 years old and though he was in exile from his homeland of South Africa, he seemed ready to become at home on the American jazz and pop markets. That summer, he had scored a number one single, “Grazing in the Grass.” A year earlier, he’d been one of the few international performers at the 1967 Monterrey International Pop Festival and had appeared in its D.A. Pennebaker documentary. Yet strangely enough, over the next 45 years Masekela never quite found his sweet spot. He was never off the map, but seemed to change record labels frequently, make vibrant albums followed by rambling ones, travel among musical styles without ever settling down. This may have finally changed with his new album, Jabulani.

A veteran doing traditional tunes from his younger days may seem like a trite format. But it’s good to remember that if the material feels contemporary to the performer, and not wool-gathering, it will sound contemporary to the listener. Masekela has been gaining skill at adapting local styles since he returned to South Africa in 1992. He began as a scattershot soloist way back when, but his recent work has acquired a burnished, almost majestic understatement that has never had a finer display than Jabulani.

One glorious quality of the mbaquanga music Masekela draws upon for these interpretations is that the style is able to address sad, even tragic subjects and make them sound serious but never mopey. The song “Mfana” tells of a young man whose sister was his dearest friend, but now she has married a man who lives so far away he will never see her again. The tune gradually turns encouraging, advocating a happier tomorrow, and feels like a party by the finish.

Like a sturdy blues album, Jabulani sounds more timeless than old or new, the strongest mbaquanga workout since the ’80s heyday of Malathini and the Mahotella Queens. The style of this record solves a persistent problem for Masekela — he’s strained to seem up-to-date, and has too often come up with forced, middlebrow-contemporary fusions. By turning to music that lives in the moment in his mind, he sounds at rest, and yes, home at last.