Proclaiming Joy, in Concert, on His 75th Birthday

The New York Times
Jon Pareles

Photograph by Robert Caplin for The New York Times
Photograph by Robert Caplin
for The New York Times

When Hugh Masekela celebrated his 75th birthday on Friday night, with a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert at Rose Theater, he recalled pivotal advice from Harry Belafonte, who was in the audience. In 1960, Mr. Masekela left the brutal apartheid of his birthplace, South Africa, to become a trumpeter in New York. He recalled that Mr. Belafonte, an early supporter, urged him to “put some of that stuff from your home into what you do.”

That’s what Mr. Masekela has done through the decades, carrying the rhythms, languages, memories, social consciousness and spirit of South Africa worldwide. His 1968 hit “Grazing in the Grass” introduced many Americans to the beat of South African township jive, and during his years as an expatriate, Mr. Masekela became a forthright symbol of the antiapartheid movement. He returned to live in South Africa in 1990, the year Nelson Mandela was released from prison; he ended Friday’s expansive concert with “Mandela (Bring Him Back Home),” a positive-thinking protest song from 1987.

Friday’s concert was full of South African rhythms and songs that pushed earnestness toward joy. Mr. Masekela played fluegelhorn with luminous clarity and his distinctive, gently jabbing phrases. Just as often he sang: about struggle, improving the world and finding love. His hearty voice, undiminished at 75, could unleash rasps, growls and whoops, applying them for both fervor and comedy.

Mr. Masekela made his messages clear. When he sang in Zulu exhorting mankind to respect the environment and end wars, he followed up with a translation. “Stimela” (“Coal Train”) began with a detailed narrative in English about the grim trains that carry African laborers to backbreaking jobs in the mines; the music gathered speed, mimicking the motion of the train itself and ending with Mr. Masekela screeching in falsetto like brakes and train whistles.

Yet Mr. Masekela is far more an entertainer than a lecturer. He had jokes, singalongs and dance moves, along with those South African grooves that have optimism built in to their major chords. His upbeat version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” made the song sound far more relieved than vindictive. His backup quintet — four South Africans, including the versatile guitarist Cameron John Ward, and a percussionist from Sierra Leone — rolled through the songs with dynamics that sounded as natural as they were well rehearsed.

Mr. Masekela had lent crucial approval to Paul Simon’s 1986 “Graceland” album, which was denounced at the time by some antiapartheid activists as a breach of the cultural boycott of South Africa; he joined Mr. Simon’s “Graceland” tour in 1987. Mr. Simon returned the favor on Friday, singing two songs from “Graceland” as reshaped by Mr. Masekela and his band, with the rhythms shifted toward jazz and Mr. Masekela’s fluegelhorn answering Mr. Simon’s vocals. They finished “You Can Call Me Al” with a reprise of the train-whistle finale of “Stimela.”

Another guest also seized the spotlight: the prodigious South African singer Sibongile Khumalo, between her sets at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s club next door, Dizzy’s. Her improvisation encompassed percussive scat-singing, curvaceous long lines, sharp-toned hints of traditional singing, and airborne, operatic swoops. Virtuosic, sophisticated and crowd-pleasing, it reaffirmed the kind of South African jazz that Mr. Masekela has done so much to disseminate.