New York City
April 25, 2006
2006 is going to be the year Hugh Masekela reminds the world why he is a musical legend. Following the somewhat lackluster kwaito experiment with his 2005 Revival, Masekela opened 2006 with the excellent Hugh Masekela Presents the Chisa Years 1965-76, a collection of tracks he performed on or produced. He has also recently undertaken a US tour.
On April 25th, Masekela (or, to be truly South African about it, Bra Hugh), appeared at SOB's in New York. Opening the set with one of his classics, "The Boy's Doing It," Masekela seemed to be setting the tone for a subdued evening, performing it at a slow, relaxed tempo. As it turned out, however, the first minute was a warm up. The band then blasted into an aggressive, up-tempo performance and maintained this level of intensity and energy almost unflaggingly throughout the entire set.
Set-wise, Maskela performed what amounted to a "greatest hits," with songs like "The Boy's Doing It, "Stimela, "Ashiko, "Grazing in the Grass and "Marketplace. The audience was ecstatic at the start of each familiar song, and with good reason: they're all great songs when performed well. And Masekela was in top form that night.
A lot has been said in recent years of Hugh Masekela's voice. Years of smoking and drug use have taken their toll and rendered it scratchy and toneless. Listening to his recent albums, one finds it difficult to argue with that. However, at SOB's, Masekela's voice was surprisingly strong, powerful and commanding on "The Boy's Doing It, while sublimely tender on the encore, "Marketplace. The only slight moment of scratchiness and wear was on the long (perhaps too long) and vocally straining "Stimela, where by the end, the falsetto train whistles were clearly difficult for him. Masekela's flugelhorn playing was forceful and his horn chops show no sign of giving way. It would be wonderful to hear him pick up the trumpet again, however.
Joining Masekela on the stage were some longtime collaborators; a veritable who's who of South African jazz. Arthur Tshabalala and Oakantse Koketso Hendrick Moilwa thickened up the sound with some excellent and funky keyboard playing, while the young yet ubiquitous Sello Montwedi provided an especially exciting drum solo on "Grazing in the Grass. Bassist Fana Zulu has a thick, warm tone reminiscent of legendary South African bassist Sipho Gumede, and during Zulu's solo, he demonstrated impressive funk chops.
However, the two figures Masekela seemed to feed off the most were guitarist John Selowane and saxophonist Khaya Mhlangu. Mhlangu, an alumnus of the Zulu pop/jazz supergroup Sakhile (as was Fana Zulu), has strong R&B leanings in his saxophone playing that provide a nice contrast to Masekela's playing. At slower points in the music, Mhlangu's saxophone teetered dangerously on the edge of smooth jazz, but as the music picked up, Mhlangu also was able to show off the intensity he is capable of building up in his solos.
Selowane, like Mhlangu, provided a nice alternative to the urgency of Masekela with his relaxed, drawn-out solo style. He has spent years collaborating with Masekela, and the effortless rapport and chemistry between the two was apparent throughout the entire show.
There were some minor issues. "Stimela ran a little long, as it often does, and consequently Masekela's voice was wavering by the end of the song. Also, the Afrobeat "Ashiko could have done with just a tiny bit more fire. However, these are minor quibbles.
Overall, the crowd in attendance that night were seeing something special, and judging by the dancing and cheering, they knew it. Let's hope that 2007 results in an album of new material that captures this powerful playing.