One of the most interesting of jazz musicians, South African trumpeter High Masekela left his native land during the Apartheid era and, after marrying his first wife singer Miriam Makeba, started learning how to play the trumpet thanks to a scholarship in New York, with his wife being the major financial contributor. This excellent box set provides a fine overview of his career over the decade from the early recordings in the United States through to his Afro-Beat recordings with a crack West African band and frequent collaborations with members of the Crusaders, not to mention his long-term musical relationship with producer Stewart Levine.
What emerges is the portrait of a musician and human being who is very open to new influences and not content to reproduce former music even when he hit big on the pop charts, and in this endeavour, he should be commended for his unwavering artistic integrity. An early ode to Brazilian music, and by extension a personal interest in the wider African diaspora, is to be found in the ten minute plus cover of a Jobim/Vinicius de Moraes classic, ‘Felicidade’, here performed in an Afro-Latin vein by a quintet featuring Big Black on congas. The original version of, ‘What is wrong with groovin’?’, is much slower than the later, and definitive reading, by Letta Mbulu, and quite frankly, at this early stage of his career, his vocals were not the strongest, though he stuck at it and eventually became a melodic vocal accompanist. A club classic in, ‘Son of ice bag,’ has received numerous covers over the years and was the start of his most successful period commercially, culminating in, ‘Grazing in the grass’, that catapulted him to fame and went all the way into the top five of the Billboard pop charts at the time.
Interestingly, in his American quintet were to be found a young pianist called William Henderson, later to be an integral part of the Pharaoh Sanders quartet, bassist Henry Franklin (of Black Jazz recordings) and guitarist Arthur Adams. Manu Dibango would repeat the African presence in the mid-1970’s, while Miriam Makeba, had already crossed over at the beginning of the 1960’s with the memorable, ‘Click song’, that so enthralled American audiences and fascinated African-Americans who heard for the first time a bona fide language of their ancestors being sung. Perhaps, some of this early period could have been truncated to allow more coverage of the 1970’s period.
The second CD focuses on the consolidation of the Chisa label as fully autonomous from Motown and collaborative work with both the Crusaders and other American musicians such as bassist Monk Montgomery, brother of guitarist Wes, and pianist Larry Willis (later of the Fort Apaché Band with Jerry Gonzalez, as well as Cuban musicians such as Francesco Aguabella (percussionist with Santana among others). Fellow South African Caiphus Semenya is a regular musician during this period. The strongest of the albums in the early 1970’s is the double vinyl, ‘Home is where the music is’, readily available on CD (re-issued on Universal), and just one example is illustrated here, ‘Minawa’. Definitely an album to be heard in its entirety. In contrast, when Masekela started delving into West African music, he enlisted the support of a young group of musicians from neighbouring countries in the region, and ‘Masekela introducing Hedzoleh sounds’, was thus born. This was in part inspired by frequenting Fela Kuti and his pioneering Afro-Beat sound and the album in its entirety is re-issued here. In the US Blue Thumb records, the label for whom Masekela was now recording, were very supportive of this new sound and an American tour in 1974 took in both the capital of Washington D.C. and the famed singer-songwriter venue, the Troubadour, in Los Angeles. A second album with this band plus two Crusaders, ‘I am not afraid’, was released and contains an all-time classic Masekela composition in, ‘Stimela’, that recounts life back in South Africa, and was an important contribution to the anti-Apartheid struggle that was gathering momentum in Europe and North America. In the UK at the time, virtually every student union had its very own Steve Biko room, in homage to the black South African civil rights activist who lost his life during riots. Levine and Masekela were instrumental in the parallel creation of a musical festival to accompany the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman in 1974. Some of America’s greatest musicians of the time (B.B. King, Santana, Ike and Tina Turner, Sister Sledge, Bill Withers and the considerable talents of the Fania All Stars) combined with local talent such as the big bands of Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau, and the daddy of them all, a certain James Brown who was massively popular with the Zairean population as a whole. Afro-Beat was the flavour of the day on, ‘Boys doin’ it’ for Casablanca records, and the terrific, Ashiko’, is a fine example of Masekela adapting his new band sound to the king of Afro-Beat, and a kindred spirit in terms of confronting authority and the establishment in Nigeria. More explicit in intent, ‘Colonial man’, repeats the musical beat, but adds some serious socio-political content, which Casablanca (the home of Parliament, but also Kiss, and soon to be the label of predilection for disco diva, Donna Summer). Masekela once again sees the panoramic vision with Brazilian accordionist/vocalist Sivuca accompanying on, ‘A song for Brazil’, while both the title track and, ‘Whitch doctor’ [correct spelling editor] were too much for the label to stomach and seemingly commercial suicide committed by such blatant references to the effects of slavery.
A few caveats. First of all, given Masekela’s regular change of label throughout his career, it would be impossible for any anthology to be truly comprehensive. This one misses out on the later success of the mid-1980’s onwards when his participation with Paul Simon on the seminal, ‘Graceland’, attracted a whole new audience and at a time when the ‘world music’ genre had come into vogue. Thus, ‘Bush doctor’ and other songs from the era are not included here. Secondly, there are a few surprising omissions from the recordings that are covered here. In particular, from 1971, why leave out the terrific ‘Johannesburg Hi-Lite Jive’, as well as half of the excellent, ‘Boys doin’ it’ album. Some of these are available on a single CD, ‘Hugh Masekela. The Collection’ (Spectrum, 2003). Thirdly, ‘Afro Beat Blues-Ojah’, from the Chisa years is missing and there are no examples of his productions with other artists (covered for example on the Hugh Masekela ‘Presents the Chisa years 1965-1975 (rare and unreleased)’ on BBE (2005), which is a pity. Arguably, all of the aforementioned could have been rectified by not including so much of the earlier material, but then that does include some fine covers and recordings that in the UK at least are now hard to find so a difficult balancing act for any compiler, and three CD’s worth of material does provide a more extensive picture of Masekela. Otherwise, this is a praiseworthy offering and one that attempts to take the story from his career in the United States and the major pop success of, ‘Grazing in the grass’, through to the non-commercial projects with his African band while exploring new African and Latin sounds. Full marks for the outstanding presentation with a hardback gatefold sleeve and comprehensive inner sleeve notes courtesy of producer Stewart Levine.
* This anthology makes a good deal more sense when accompanied by the autobiography, ‘Still grazing. The musical journey of Hugh Masekela’, co-written by Masekela and MIchael Cheers (Three Rivers Press, New York, 2004)