Following his departure from Johannesburg in 1961around the same time that many other South African musicians put apartheid behind themHugh Masekela ensconced himself in New York and settled in to make a heap of recordings over the ensuing decades. Masekela, who first drew attention for his straight-ahead jazz playing, would eventually build an enormous American and international fan base through crossover music, as well as live performances like his appearance at the legendary 1967 Monterey Pop Festival along with Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and other heroes of the era.
But not all of Masekela's music has aged well, which hasn't been helped by the intermittent hills and valleys in the trumpeter/vocalist's output. Some of it is downright cheesy, some of it is brilliant, but you have to throw the dice to know for sure.
Enter Masekela the producer on this collection of "rare and unreleased" songs, and those doubts rapidly fade in the light of joyous, exuberant music that draws equally from Motown, Afrobeat, mbaqanga, gospel and jazz. During a particularly fertile decade, Masekela worked with Stewart Levine to produce material for their Chisa label, including a dozen or more Crusaders records and various odds and ends that have not seen release until today.
The opening "Afro Beat Blues" came relatively late (1975) but is as good an example as any to illustrate the raw, percussive funk that underlies much of these songs. A Sly Stone-meets-Fela-Kuti groove bumps and slithers along, underpinning Masekela's relatively straightforward call and response vocals. Letta Mbulu, a megawatt singer from Soweto, lends her piercing, emphatic delivery to four tracks, including the heavily gospellized "Mahlalela" and the shuffling, keyboard-driven "Macongo" that closes the disc. The most overtly South African track comes toward the end in the form of a horn and guitar-heavy township jive performance by the Johannesburg Street Band.
These fourteen tracks are a mixture of wildly hybridized Afrocentric styles, but they flow easily and smoothly, begging bodily movement and demanding surrender to giddy flight. A party record if there ever was one!
Personnel: Ojah with Hugh Masekela (1); Letta Mbulu (2,5,9,14); Baranta & Miatta Fahinbulleh
(3,6,8,10,12); The Zulus (4,7,11); Johanesburg Street Band (13).