Hugh Masekela and Listen 2 Africa

Hugh Masekela: How the Listen 2 Africa Label Is Hooking Up a 73-Year Old Jazz & World Music Heritage Artist

by Tad Hendrickson

Soccer fans remember ESPN’s coverage of the FIFA World Cup in 2010. The obnoxious vuvuzela horns that prompted some TV watchers to turn down the volume, but there was also an insightful pieces called ‘Umlando ­ Through My Father’s Eyes.’ Here ESPN correspondent Sal Masekela (often found working the X Games) did a series of ten intimate 4-5 minute segments revolving around his legendary father Hugh Masekela’s return to various spots around South African that he remembered from growing up as well as what life was like back then under Apartheid.

Exiled in 1961 as part of an Apartheid campaign, Hugh Masekela moved to the U.S. worked as a jazz bandleader and had a hit with groovy pop instrumental ‘Grazing in the Grass’ in 1968, which shot to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 and the album ‘Promise of a Future’ went on sell over 4 million copies worldwide.

Even before the World Cup exposure, the flugelhorn and cornet player had grown to become a global jazz and world music icon. He remains active and now returns with a varied collection of traditional South African wedding songs called Jabulani. So even though Maselkela will play in front 15,000 on the main stage of this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival in March, the 73-year-old star needed some fresh thinking about how to reach his international audience using both traditional and modern tools.

Enter the label Listen 2 Africa, which is part of recently launched endeavor called Listen 2 Entertainment Group helmed by Dave Love that offers management, publishing (Buntz Music ASACP & Música De Amor BMI), production services, consulting, administration and tour support. Listen 2’s boutique label has also put out high profile releases by South African act Ladysmith Black Mambazo as well as smooth jazz artists like Candy Dulfer and straight ahead jazz people like Michael Brecker.

Love released Masekela’s ‘Revival’ in 2005 when he oversaw the Heads Up label from 1989 to 2009 when Concord, who bought Heads Up and its sister company Telarc in 2005, moved operations to its offices in L.A.

During his time at Heads Up, Love worked with smooth jazz artists like Marion Meadows, more straight ahead musicians like Esperanza Spalding (who was one of his last signings for the label) as well as South African artists.

According to Love, “When I had Heads Up one of he things I tried to do from a musical standpoint was to be diversified and provide an entertainment that was adult orientated ­ it was jazz, traditional jazz, contemporary jazz, fusion and then world music.”

Through work with George Duke, Stanley Clarke and Take 6, Love has gown his databases of Adult African American audiences. Love also worked with NPR to grow the audience as he sought to introduce or reintroduce these South African acts to consumers.

When things changed with Heads Up, Love wasn’t certain that he wanted to get back into the record business. He was enjoying his non-label ventures ­ Love is also partner in Innovative Entertainment Solutions, a web based marketing company specializing in e-commerce, which provides artists and companies the ability to sell digital and physical products through their own branded store.

But the opportunity presented itself when his former artists came looking for his expertise to help guide their careers on a variety of different levels ­ Love is North American management for Esperanza Spalding and others through a partnership with Montuno S.L., a Barcelona based management and production company. Love also signed a deal with the New York-based Razor & Tie, which has distribution through Sony and RED.

“I fell in love with them,’ Love says of Razor & Tie,” Love says, “I was pleased that there wasn’t anything on their label that sounded like the kind of music I was used to recording, like Maceo Parker or Ladysmith Black Mambazo.”

According to Love, this deal also gives him a lot more flexibility to work with advertising agencies and cut deals that may not get done at a larger company. In the past, Love has brokered syncs with Sysco, Life Savers, Heinz Baked Beans and others. According to Love, Listen 2 works closely with the artist that allows them to have ownership of their masters. It also allows artists to help spearhead their promotion and marketing, which

Love believes is the best-case scenario.

“I offer much more than a traditional record company head who’s looking at the bottom line of record sales,” Love says. “It’s important to me that they are out there in front of people, and they can put people in the seats, which is where the bulk of their money is coming from. I can assist them in whatever it takes to get them in front of an audience and then everything else is going to come”

With Hugh Masekela, Love’s campaign is a mix of old school savvy and new school technology. Masekela is currently in the midst of an 11-date North American tour that hits performing arts centers, colleges and clubs in primary and secondary markets. A galvanizing live performer with a hot young band, Masekela tours around the world regularly, but not often in the U.S. to the extent of this current tour. Love made other changes as well, ones that bring this heritage artist into the 21st Century.

“The one thing Hugh never had before was his own web site, so we created a new web site,” says Love, who expects downloading to climb from its current sales rate of 25% as older consumers become more comfortable with the technology. “We tie in the social media aspect with Facebook and Twitter. There are digital marketing campaigns being done that tying it back to his web site where they can purchase the album or downloads on iTunes and Emusic or stream it at Rhapsody and Pandora.”