By Robin Denselow
PHOTO: COURTESY OF SARAH LEE FOR THE GUARDIAN
This wasn’t the first London concert to celebrate the music of Africa’s first and greatest superstar Miriam Makeba, but it was the most emotional and pertinent, for the man in charge was her first husband, Hugh Masekela. He did her justice with an adventurous revue that was far more joyous than the Barbican’s Mama Africa tribute two years ago, thanks to the wildly enthusiastic audience, the venue and the lineup. This was another Barbican presentation, but staged in the intimate Hackney Empire, an ideal setting for Masekela, and dominated by young South Africans who showed how Makeba’s legacy survives in a very different post-apartheid climate. It was Masekela who opened, backed by his five-piece band, with a fine display of singing, flugelhorn work and energetic dancing – remarkable for a man of 72 – before being joined by three younger singers who provided the backing for his rousing treatment of Khawuleza, the story of police raids on illegal shebeens. Then he stood back, joining the other singers, dancing, providing occasional horn solos, and acting as an enthusiastic MC, as they reinterpreted Makeba’s blend of township jive and political balladry.
The variety was impressive, with the burly Vusi Mahlasela switching from acrobatic and soulful improvisation, backed by solo guitar, to a stomping treatment of the dance hit Pata Pata.
Then came Thandiswa, proving why she is South Africa’s finest female contemporary singer with a powerful set that included a delicate Meet Me at the River. Lira, who followed, started with more conventional western pop/R&B before switching to a pained and original Soweto Blues, co-written by Masekela, who closed this intriguing show. Makeba once complained to me, “Our young singers want to sound American.” Maybe, but here was proof that the great South African vocal tradition lives on.