Hugh’s Complete Aural Workout

Kgomotso Moncho

Photograph by Sizwe Ndingane
Photograph by Sizwe Ndingane

Hugh Masekela is steadfast in his mission and life’s obsession with heritage restoration and his latest venture presented itself when he least expected it. But he believes it is one whose image refutes what apartheid stood for and with a lot of socio political positiveness.

And it would seem Bra Hugh has a knack for coming up with projects that defy socio-political expectations. Six years ago, he signed Corlea Botha (now doing her native Afrikaans music) to his now defunct Chissa records, after spotting her as the only white girl among hopefuls at the Surf Miriam Makeba Tribute to Dolly Rathebe auditions. on the album Shades of the Rainbow, Bra Hugh has Botha (from Benoni) tackling Afro-pop and funk, singing in Zulu and Shona, and doing songs such as Take Me to Soweto with charm.

This time he’s gathered a group of Danish girls and a quartet of local male voices to give new interpretations to South African and Scandinavian folk songs.

At his recording studio, House of Masekela, in Boschkop, Pretoria, opened in 2010, he and his Danish counterparts opened up about this special venture. And it turns out the Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu had a hand in its conception.

His 80th birthday last year, which was marred by the Dalai Lama being denied a visa by the SA government to attend the celebration, was the catalyst. With the Dalai Lama being present via Skype, the party did go on and among the big names invited to perform was conductor Rikke Forchhammer and her group of girls, The Baobab Singers, from Denmark.

Bra Hugh was supposed to be there, but couldn’t make it. Flipping through the channels at home he came across the broadcast of the Tutu festivity and saw the Danish girls singing SA folk songs with Forchhammer at the helm.

The Baobab Singers have toured SA five times doing SA songs. Their appeal is in how they render the songs, respect them by approaching them simply and sincerely, without trying too hard.

“We originally started with Tanzanian music because I lived in Tanzania as a child,” says Forchhammer. “I studied musicology and specialised in African choral music and have always been drawn to SA music because of its structure and soul.”

Bra Hugh was taken in by their knowledge of SA music.

“What knocked me out was seeing these Danish people consumed in our heritage, and we’re looking for Denmark,” he says. “With music being my first language, I feel they live in a world I’m obsessed with, which is heritage restoration. So when I heard them my first instinct was, ‘how am I going to get hold of them?’”

Like something that was meant to happen, Bra Hugh got an e-mail from Forchhammer proposing a possible collaboration. Bra Hugh brought with him a quartet of male singers from Voslorus, Complete, who are simply astounding. They combine their influence of Boys II Men, The Manhattan Brothers, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and gospel music into their own musical ritual. The soul in their raw voices does more than put a tingle in your spine. And with the coaching they get from Masekela, they have moulded their sound to produce immaculate and heartfelt harmonies with the precision equal to that of formal training.

I first saw them in the Masekela and James Ngcobo theatre production, Songs of Migration, which, as the name explains, is about the heritage of migrant songs.

Recently they featured in another theatre showcase, in choreographer and dancer Gregory Maqoma’s masterpiece, Exit/Exist, in which they soulfully remixed some of Simphiwe Dana’s music.

“I was introduced to them through a friend of mine, Sanza, who was one of the original cast members of King Kong, the musical in 1961. He’s originally from Pimville, Soweto, but has been living in the UK for 48 to 49 years now. But he bought a house in Randburg 10 years ago and someone from his church in England told him about this group, Complete. He found them and kept calling me for two years to listen to them. I went to his house one day and they were there.

“When you look at them you don’t think they can sing, because they look like thugs. But when they opened their mouths, my jaw fell to my knees. In my profession, you don’t sign a group after one song so I had them sing five songs and when they were done, I told Sanza: ‘Lock the door, these boys are not going anywhere’,” recalls Bra Hugh.

From then on they started working on the musical, Songs of Migration. Bra Hugh features Complete on his new recording which should release in the next few weeks and “they make us look good,” he says. But they have their own album in the pipeline.

With the 10-day recording with The Baobab Singers and Complete at his studio, Masekela wanted to capture the mood of the two groups and he features on the trumpet occasionally with the likes of Fana Zulu on the piano.

This combo is something that has never been heard before. And as he concludes, Bra Hugh says: “Spiritually I feel like this is something that wanted to happen, but was looking for its players.

“The world will want to see this.”