Hugh Masekela is known as a composer, singer, flugelhorn and trumpet player and for bringing a combination of African infused jazz to the musical world. He has played with many musical greats and he is also known for his views on South African politics and his regaling against the exploitation of people in his homeland. In an email to me he apologised for not being a conventional jazz musician and to some extent he is right. He is more than that, he is entertaining, vibrant and brings to a performance a rounded, grounded and engaging sense of a musician in his prime.
The Hugh Masekala band gathered on stage – bass, bongos and percussion, drums, drums, guitar and keyboards and played, shortly joined by Hugh himself who greeted the audience with a flugelhorn solo and the words ‘Hello Snapes’ (we were at the opening night of Snape Proms). From then on, what followed was fun, energetic and at times poignant. Hugh Masekela brings something so steeped in rhythm and harmonic timings, it could only have originated in Africa, that continent of immense beauty, diversity and energy.
There were many tunes, interspersed with solos from all of the band and of course, Hugh himself, producing notes from the flugelhorn which were at times raucous and at others sweetly emotive and improvisational. Hugh sang, added percussion and played his flugelhorn but he also entertained as he danced and wiggled his way across the stage, added dramatic interludes and stories (lots of them). Hugh assured us he is actually from Newcastle in the UK. As a child, he fell into the river, got swept past Southampton, across the sea, the Mediterranean and across Indian Ocean, ending up with penguins in Cape Town who brought him up until an elderly couple found him and gave him a home. A few years after this a tour bus came to Cape Town and his parents were on it. They spotted him and took him home to Newcastle – Hugh assures us this is a true story. He also told the story of the trains which crossed Africa from Mozambique, Malawi and Namibia to bring people from all nations and tribes to work in appalling conditions in the mines around Johannesburg. True enough and the ensuing number was completed with Hugh making all the train noises. He included anecdotes about the oppression in South Africa and reminded people of the rebirth of this rainbow nation and the relative peace today (which was all the more poignant when we remember that Hugh himself left the country for many years when apartheid ruled). He is immensely fond of his homeland and this comes across in both his stories and his music.
The music was amazing – I overheard one lady speaking to her neighbour, describing it as ‘a cut above’ and she was right. The start from Hugh was a bit wobbly as he found his footing but soon he showed us what an amazing player his is and the band members were given ample room to show their prowess on their instruments as well. At one point during a rollicking number, Hugh sat down and one by one each member of the band left their instruments to take up a seated position on stage leaving the keyboard player to deliver a beautiful solo number which created a gentle, peaceful atmosphere – before the band and Hugh once again took the music someplace else. Hugh sang of immense land, big skies and all the various stages of life which he includes in his numbers. He encouraged the audience to stand and shake their own booties to his hits Grazing In The Grass and Mandela (Bring Him Back Home). Most of the audience needed no second bidding.
The performance was not perfect – there was a sense of tiredness (only the night before the band played in Latvia, they flew Ryan Air, making them a no frills band apparently) and at times Hugh’s notes, both singing and playing were shaky but this made the performance real. The numbers were long and the energy relentless. During one number about a disreputable lady who takes no prisoners, Hugh sashayed, twisted, shook his booty and lifted his top shirt, complete with feminine hand movements -and voice at times. Wonderful. Hugh showed immense respect for his audience. He told them they were beautiful people, he had boned up a few facts about the location and the warmth emanating from the stage was very touching. Hugh engages from the start – I could not take my eyes off him. When he commented to me he was not conventional, he said he spoke as he honestly felt. This comes across loud and clear in his music. He also said, “when we are playing, we are only focused on the song. The audience really appreciate that and when we groove they move with us.”
This was great music and fine entertainment. All the band were brilliant and well-practiced. They had to stay alert because it was clear at times Hugh was not following the rehearsed order of things but they did so with aplomb. The star of the show remained Hugh and it was difficult to remember he is 77 and proved, after just a waver at the start, that he can deliver music with dexterity, polish, tell many a good story and boy, can he still shake his booty.
As for being conventional, I am not sure Hugh would recognise convention if it hit him over the head. He told me he is ‘only a hard working musician’. On that I would disagree. He is much more than that, he is an entertainer, a man who is making a difference. He does what he does exceptionally well and the audience enjoyed every note, every line of story and every grin. They certainly grooved with him.