By Ivan Hewett
Hugh Masekela at 70 is still magnificent, even if he now longer has oppression to fight against.
In a recent column I spoke about the difficulties of artistic creation in countries liberated from long oppression, and asked rhetorically: “Without the struggle, what can we sing about?”.
Hugh Masekela’s concert last Thursday with the London Symphony Orchestra gave the simple answer: love and life. As he reminded us, black South Africans did not spend their whole lives protesting, they sang love songs too. ’This song was a hit in 1949, and because of it there were many babies born in 1950!” he about jovially about Lizzy, a romantic ballad from the township, and hearing it we knew just why.
There were lullabies too, of course, and we heard a particularly beautiful one in the shape of Thula-thula. We also heard folk-songs from other parts of Africa, and Masekela’s own signature tune Grazing in the Grass. Some of them were sung by Masekela in that gravely voice, but more often he played them in that unmistakable golden flugelhorn tone, so soft it seems to have no attack at all.
Masekela has now turned 70, but the years have hardly touched him. He stands tall and ramrod straight, and with that special African gift of being dignified and exuberantly colourful at the same time. He was surrounded by friends on the stage to bolster the singing, and after each song Masekela would name them all, in a gesture of solidarity that was as moving as the songs themselves.
Inevitably the atmosphere grew warm with nostalgia. The spirit of Miriam Makeba, the great voice of the struggle against apartheid seemed to hang in the air, and the air of relaxed benevolence was abetted by the very luxuriantly harmonised orchestral backing to the songs, arranged by Jason Yarde. At times it threatened to become just too soft-centred, but there two new orchestral pieces to give a sharp jolt of energy.
The first of them, a mini-flugelhorn concerto from Jason Yarde, had the composer’s engaging mix of tender lyricism and sudden rude shocks; the second, Andrew McCormack’s Incentive, mingled a film noir atmosphere with middle-period Stravinskian rhythmic energy, to energising effect.
But the best moment of the evening came towards the end, with Masekela’s wonderful song Stimela about the trains that carry migrant workers from their homes. He evoked the sound of the train in a piercing scream that could have been pure fun; but one couldn’t miss the implication of human tragedy underneath.