Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Hugh Masekela's 50 year journey

If you've read more than one of these Border Radio posts, you know that the subject of migration is endlessly fascinating to me. What happens to people when their lives, culture and art are relocated? I often examine the way the forced migrations of the slave trade brought various African traditions to the Americas, and those traditions formed the basis for so much music, specifically Afro-Latin, jazz and blues. Between those three, you pretty much have the entire foundation of Western popular music, everything from salsa to rock n' roll to hip-hop and electronic dance music.

Near the end of his set at the Old Town School of Folk Music last Friday, South African legend (and really, somebody with a 50+ career in contemporary music is quite deserving of that honorific) Hugh Masekela introduced his late 60s hit Grazing In the Grass by joking that the people in the audience could find it by by looking through their grandparent's LP collections. Me? My copy was on a 45, the little record with the big hole in the middle.

photo: Scott Pollard

Grazing came out in 1968. It's an engagingly cheerful record and one that fit on the radio nicely at a time when the means of music discovery was Top 40, and the charts had room for a little bit of everything: Motown, the Beatles, the Doors, Sly and the Family Stone, the Ramsey Lewis Trio and odd little bits of reggae (though nobody knew what that was yet) like Desmond Dekker's Israelites.

photo: Scott Pollard

I was a kid at the time and had never heard the word apartheid. I didn't know that the creator of these three minutes of aural pleasure was a political exile from his home, and would remain so for another 26 years. I just heard a grooving song that always put a smile on my face. Being 1968, I always assumed that the grass of the title was marijuana. Good times.

Some journeys end up, happily, back home. The crack multigenerational band that Masekela brought to the Old Town School was entirely African and almost all from Cape Town or Johannesburg, the sole exception being a percussionist from Sierra Leone. The music they played was firmly grounded in South African rhythms and harmonies, but to these ears percolated along like really good 70s-era jazz fusion (think Weather Report), mixing pop smarts and showmanship in with funkified bass and a barrage of electric keyboards. Masekela himself doesn't play his flugelhorn much anymore, but it doesn't appear that it's from lack of energy, as the 74 year old danced, sung, played cowbell, joked and otherwise commanded attention with a rough charisma the entire performance. A joy radiated from the stage, but that was set aside for an extended performance of Stimela, a stark song of remembrance that came out in 1974 and was most decidedly not a radio hit, from an album entitled I Am Not Afraid, and later rerecorded as apartheid fell for the album Hope. For a few minutes, Masekela bared the pain in his soul, and his introduction acknowledged that the conditions described in the songs lyrics still applied to far too much of the world.

photo: Scott Pollard

The pictures that accompany this writing were taken by my friend Scott Pollard, and I think they do a tremendous job of capturing Masekela's joy, but also, more importantly, his dignity. I'm glad that I had the fortune of witnessing this performance and its implied message of perseverance in the face of daunting odds. Sometimes, justice prevails and things do get better.

photo: Scott Pollard

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