Hugh Masekela at Pick-Staiger

Musician Hugh Masekela Brings South Africa to Pick-Staiger

North by Northwestern
By Thomas Carroll

As South African vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Hugh Masekela danced in time to cue his band’s next song Saturday night, he addressed an audience of both students and senior citizens at a packed Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.

Masekela’s concert showcased a hard grooving mix of established South African musical elites and young rising stars performing both new material and the older songs that earned Masekela international fame in the 1960s and 70s. The show was part of an 11-city U.S. tour in support of his newest album Jabulani, which consists of reworked traditional wedding songs from Masekela’s hometown of Witbank, South Africa.

He explained to a hesitant audience that one of his songs was originally written to appease the gods and avoid their wrath, urging them to sing the words in order to save themselves from being struck down by lightning. Meanwhile, his hypertalented five piece rhythm section maintained a gentle pulsating vamp beneath the teasing.

Masekela continued: “And if you don’t care about your lives, think about the other people on the stage, please” as the band exploded into an energetic arrangement of the South African ritual led by the 73-year-old frontman’s percussive vocals and joyful flugelhorn playing.

Masekela’s music emanates energy and confidence. Even when he sings about issues like African poverty or Apartheid, he expresses a fervent sense of determination either through vocal ornamentation or lyrical flugelhorn improvisation. His incessant dancing and defiant fist pumps also convey this resilient attitude. Masekela’s dexterity as a vocalist and instrumentalist disguises his true age. On the horn he plays with an earthy tone and alternates intricate rapid-fire runs with fluid soulful legato lines while his voice ranges from pop-tune crooning to an aggressive half-growl that gives continuity to his funk/jazz/South African fusion arrangements.

The veteran performer continued to incorporate humor into his performance, chiding Evanstonians for being afraid to “let go” and break free from social conservatism. He poked fun at African wedding ceremonies, explaining how people of his village would sing songs like “Girl, you better learn to sweep because you can’t make love in the dirt” following a successful ceremonial engagement.

The members of the rhythm section demonstrated at least as much intensity and musicality as their bandleader. Many instrumental songs featured extensive solos from all musicians and the group lengthened Masekela’s standard repertoire with jazz-influenced improvisation.

Drummer Lee-Roy Sauls, 27, anchored the band with steady funk and African fusion grooves while renowned veteran percussionist Francis Manneh Fuster added layers of texture with a variety of shakers and bells in addition to polyrhythmic solos on timbales, congas and a talking drum. Keyboardist Randal Skippers and 25-year-old guitar protégé Cameron Ward mingled seamlessly to create Masekela’s harmonic backdrop when not offering their own laid back funk-and-blues-oriented solos. Electric bass innovator Abednigo Sibongiseni Zulu supported the band with a rich tone and captivating sense of time. His only bass solo at the end of the concert was a major highlight.

The band’s setlist seemed to accommodate everyone in the audience. They played smooth jazz and disco reminiscent songs for the old fans and the more upbeat traditional songs had the younger members of the audience on their feet by the end of the second set. Although the primary mood of the show was celebratory, Masekela reminded his audience that, although Apartheid is over, there are still many underprivileged people in the world. He dedicated his final song, a somber ballad that morphed into a tropical-tinged vamp over which all members could tear through their final solos, to those still fighting to find a safe place in the world.