Music

'Rejoice' with Tony Allen and Hugh Masekela

Photo: Brett Rubin & Bernard Benant / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

This long-delayed collaboration by two African master musicians is an occasion for jubilation. Rejoice is a posthumous reminder of what Hugh Masekela at his best could deliver and of the now 80-year-old Tony Allen's amazing vitality.

Rejoice
Tony Allen and Hugh Masekela

World Circuit

20 March 2020

Rejoice, the vibrant new album by Nigerian drummer Tony Allen and the late South African flugelhornist and trumpeter Hugh Masekela, has had a long road to its release. The sessions began in 2010 in London, but because of conflicting schedules, the two musicians never got around to resuming work on the project. The unfinished recordings remained in an archive until 2019, a year after Masekela's death. Then Allen and producer Nick Gold revisited the tapes and added the finishing touches Allen and Masekela had discussed—keyboard, percussion, and vocal overdubs. The final product is something Masekela no doubt would have approved, a spacious, uncluttered sound centered on drums, flugelhorn, and bass, with a saxophone on three tracks, understated keyboards, and chanted vocals by Masekela and Allen. The long-delayed release indeed is an occasion for rejoicing, while also for regret that the two master musicians only collaborated once, and never will again.

Tony Oladipo Allen, born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1940, made his reputation as the drummer in Fela Anikulapo Kuti's Africa 70 band. Allen had listened to a lot of American jazz and was particularly attracted to two drummers, Art Blakey and Max Roach. Allen noticed that few Nigerian drummers made much use of their high hats, the combination of two cymbals and a foot pedal mounted on a stand. Roach's innovative use of the high hat, as well as the dexterous way he used his hands and feet, made a vivid impression on Allen, as did Blakey's mastery of polyrhythms and what Roach called Blakey's "maintaining independence with all four limbs." Drawing on the influences of drummers, Allen developed a fluid, kinetic style that only became more powerful after he left Fela in 1980. (The title of his 2002 album, Eager Hands and Restless Feet, references the four-limbed approach he developed from listening to his heroes Blakey and Roach.)

Hugh Masekela was born in 1939 in Witbank, a South African township near Johannesburg that was a coal mining settlement. (The exploitation of black miners inspired one of his best-known compositions, "Stimela" [Coal Train].) Seeing the 1950 Kirk Douglas film Young Man with a Horn when he was 13 made him want to play trumpet; while still in his teens he joined the bebop ensemble the Jazz Epistles and, with them, recorded the first jazz album by a South African band. In 1960, however, he left South Africa after the apartheid regime massacred black protestors in the Sharpeville township. (Masekela spent the next 30 years in exile, returning to South Africa after the white supremacist government fell.) While living in New York City in the '60s, he studied at the Manhattan School of Music during the day. He spent his evenings in jazz venues, where he got to hear some of the music's leading and most innovative exponents: Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Mingus, and Tony Allen's hero, Max Roach.

His 1960s albums, The Americanization of Ooga Booga and The Emancipation of Hugh Masekela, introduced listeners to his township jazz style and his political militancy—the latter featured a cover photo of Masekela dressed like Abraham Lincoln and had songs about the Vietnam war and South African migrant miners. He scored a number one pop hit in 1968 with the infectious instrumental, "Grazin' in the Grass" and performed that year at the Monterey Pop Festival. Over the next decades, he would continue to work in various pop contexts, including R&B, funk, rock, and disco. He sometimes watered down his playing to fit those formats, but he never cut his ties to jazz. On his 1972 double-album Home Is Where the Music Is, regarded as one of his best, Masekela left pop behind to present a new sound that fused South African melodies and rhythms and the soulful, exploratory African American jazz of the era.

In 1973, Masekela spent a month in Nigeria, where he met and hung out with Fela; a decade later he had a hit with the Fela's song, "Lady". At that time, he and Allen first discussed collaborating, while they also were trying to raise money for Allen's former boss, who was imprisoned in Lagos by the Nigerian military government he had excoriated in song and his public statements.

The critic Ron Wynn has described Masekela's playing as a "charismatic blend of striking upper-register lines, half-valve effects, and repetitive figures and phrases, with some note bending, slurs, and tonal colors." When Masekela sang, his rough, semi-shouted vocals contrasted appealingly with his horn, whether he was playing flugelhorn, trumpet, or cornet.

On Rejoice, Masekela's flugelhorn melodies dovetail with Allen's energetic, flowing rhythms. Although the finished recordings include contributions from younger musicians—keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones, vibist Lewis Wright, bassists Mutale Chashi and Tom Herbert, and saxophonist Steve Williamson—the heart of the record is the chemistry between Allen and Masekela. It is a beautiful thing to hear. The recording process began with Allen laying down patterns on drums, and then Masekela created melodies from what Allen recorded. The other musicians' parts were added to the foundation Allen and Masekela built. Their playing is tasteful and unobtrusive—Williamson's comping and soloing on "Agbada Bougou" and "Slow Bones"; Wright's vibes on "Jabulani"; Amon-Jones' keys on "Slow Bones". But Rejoice probably would've worked just as well as an album of duets. And with drums and horn upfront in the mix, it often sounds like one.

Allen and Masekela pay homage to their friend Fela on one of the album's best tracks, "Never", an Afrobeat-jazz hybrid with Masekela singing mournful lyrics in a style reminiscent of the late Nigerian— "Lagos never going to be the same without Fela…Never!" Over the loping, relaxed groove of "Jabulani (Rejoice, Here Comes Tony)", Masekela chants a praise-song in Zulu for his colleague— "Be happy, here is Tony / Playing the drums / He is hitting them hard / He is cooking!" "Obama Shuffle Blues"—Masekela came up with this and all the other song titles—is a funky showcase for Allen's snare drum work and Masekela's punchy, blues-tinged horn, dancing with and around the beats.

Kudos to Nick Gold for the outstanding production on Rejoice. It's so crisp and full of presence that you, the listener, will feel like you're in the same room with the musicians, standing, more likely dancing (you won't want to sit while this is on) somewhere between Allen's kit and Masekela at the mic, blowing sweet and hot.

If you need something to get your socially isolated ass off the couch and up and shaking, Rejoice is the album. Even if you have to dance alone, some polyrhythmic pleasure during a pandemic is no little thing. With its deep grooves and virtuosic playing, the pairing of Allen and Masekela—overdue and sadly not to be repeated— Rejoice is a posthumous reminder of what Hugh Masekela at his best could deliver and of the now 80-year-old Allen's amazing vitality.

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