[15 October 2001]
Hugh Masakela’s crisp but mellow trumpet tones will always be associated, by my generation, with the international Anti-Apartheid movement, to which he made a significant contribution. To some extent he became music’s own Nelson Mandela figure. His stage persona was dignified, quietly heroic, and seemingly calm in the face of extreme provocation. On record, and at innumerable festivals and fund-raising events, his easy mix of jazz, South African rhythms and social protest symbolised all that was decent, human, and humane in opposition to the barbarities of the racist state apparatus of his native country.
His life story became part of the movement’s own folklore. The English activist the Reverend Trevor Huddlestone gave him his first trumpet and Masakela was precocious enough to catch the tail end of the legendary District Six jazz scene, before Apartheid’s cruelties demolished the whole area. District Six represented, culturally and socially, everything the regime opposed. South Africa wanted to see blacks as tribal, traditional, and rurally based, with their only function in the cities restricted to a brutalised supply of cheap labour. The modern, very urban, socially charged creativity of District Six was thus anathema. Mandela was there and so was a music scene as vibrant as any in the world. The modernism and cultural diversity of that music made it almost the aural equivalent of ANC philosophy. Bulldozers and the post-Sharpeville world destroyed it. The musicians, alongside political figures such as Mandela and Huddlestone, were silenced or forced into exile.
Masakela went to America to play with the activist-singer Miriam Makeba. He has spent nearly 40 years now, touring and recording prolifically. His breakthrough came in 1968 with the charming, feel good melody-riff “Grazin’ in the Grass”. Still one of only a handful of instrumentals that have topped the charts, it was one of that year’s best sellers and has since been covered by innumerable artists. There will be many who have forgotten about (or never heard of) Masakela but will recognise that tune instantly.
It opens this collection and sounds as warm and relaxed as it ever did. One of the great soul-jazz pieces of the era. Well almost. For this version is a re-recording. This is not a greatest hits album proper but a “best of” of recent (1990s) Columbia tracks with some re-workings of old favourites and some South African standards. No harm in that, but it does have a profound effect on the significance (if not the sound) of some numbers.
There is no problem with the instrumental cuts. Masakela’s style has not changed much over the years and as there has been no attempt to greatly update the arrangements (some synth percussion might alienate purists) this is pretty much vintage fare. Masakela is a player who stays within a restricted range. He is not, I feel, a jazz figure of the stature of compatriots Dudu Pakwana or Abdullah Ibrahim. Nonetheless it is a distinctive voice he possesses and numbers like “Chileshe” with that unforced soulful-jazz take on some subtle South African folk patterns will win over the most critical listener.
Some of the songs do not translate so well. The Mandela plea “Bring Him Back Home” inevitably has lost its relevance. The anti-colonial “Vasco Da Gama” has not, but somehow lacks the bite of the 1976 original. Lyrics apart, Masakela is not a singer who is ever going to head anyone’s all time top ten and sometimes falters. On the whole though, as with his playing, he knows his strengths as well as limitations and the trademark melancholy gruffness adds immeasurably to ballads like “Mama”. This track from 1995, which touches on the trumpeter’s long struggle with alcoholism has a poignancy which over-rides any vocal shortcomings. It also, perhaps unconsciously, points to the generally hidden personal costs of the exiled life.
The one vocal disaster comes with the spoken section of the (unlikely) dance hit “Don’t Go Lose It Baby”. Using the bassline from Lamont Dozier’s “Back to My Roots” and a tugging hook-chorus it remains a favourite in clubs today but Masakela’s rapping was inept enough in the ‘80s. It now sounds absolutely ridiculous. The rest of the vocal work is handled efficiently by a female chorus and I would suggest that they should in future always be given the major load.
In the end it is the African material given that jazz twist that carries the day. “Khauleza”, “Thanayi”, and the bittersweet “Strawberries” all date back to the Makeba records of the early ‘60s and all stand up well. I prefer the unhurried swing of the mid-tempo material, which suits the richness of the trumpet, but there are plenty of uptempo numbers for those who accuse this artist of being a little too MOR/smooth.
This is a positive album for Masakela. He has survived his own battles, the political situation that caused them has changed and, musically, he has regained an audience in his homeland. This was achieved with Black to the Future, from which many of the highlights of this set are taken. There is something a little cozy, a little too acceptable to Paul-Simon-middle class liberal tastes, to the general atmosphere evoked by these recordings and you do wish for some more extended instrumental workouts at times.
However, this is not really the musician’s fault. He and others of his generation pioneered an amalgamation of pop, African-American, and South African ingredients long before the categories fusion or world music were invented. Our over-familiarity with such cross-pollinated styles should not blind us to their initial inventiveness. Masakela’s own take on this trans-continentalism, one that can even be heard underpinning the superficially pop/soul-oriented “Grazin’”, has sustained a long career. This set shows that it has yet to run out of steam.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/masakelahugh-grazin/