Matsuli Music’s purpose of unearthing and reissuing “classic South African jazz on vinyl” has led to some wonderful (re)discoveries. Okay Temiz and Johnny Dyani’s ‘Witchdoctor’s Son’ from their 1976 Istanbul collaboration is a rare treasure as is The Soul Jazzmen’s 1969 hard bop album ‘Inhlupeko (Distress)’; however, the release of South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela’s 1980 concert ‘Live in Lesotho’ sits high amongst some of the label’s greatest releases.
Often referenced as “the father of South African jazz”, Masekela’s music was for much of his career synonymous with the anti-apartheid movement – his 1987 single ‘Bring Him Back Home’ was added to the long list of voices in the call for Nelson Mandela’s freedom. Having left South Africa in 1960 due to the extreme measures carried out by the Apartheid state, Masekela initially studied in London before moving to the US and quickly making waves in jazz circles for his innovative approach to jazz – picking up where he left off in South Africa having started South Africa’s first youth orchestra (The Huddleston Jazz Band) and being a part of the Jazz Epistles who, in 1959, were cited as having recorded the first African jazz record.
Performed in 1980, ‘Live in Lesotho’ was billed as part of a series of Hugh Masekela’s ‘welcome home’ shows and sees Masekela on Flugelhorn and vocals backed by members of his New York band including the revered talents of jazz-funk pianist, singer and songwriter Don Blackman, who in this case is also credited as handling all the musical arrangements for the show along with Masekela; saxophonist and flautist Rene McLean (Yusef Lateef, Gary Bartz), guitarist Bobby Broom (credited here as Bobby Brew and further famed for his work with Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis), bassist Victor Bailey (Weather Report, Kashif) and drummer Poogie Bell (Weldon Irvine, Marcus Miller). The band is rounded out with backing vocals by Thandeka Hgono, Thembi Mtshali and Lorraine Mahlangu.
‘Ashiko’ kicks the project off fantastically with such afrobeat-esque swagger; ‘Stimela’, a song about migrant workers which sees Hgono, Mtshali and Mahlangu lead on vocals, is sublime as is the incredible energy of ‘Ha Le Se Le Li Khanna’ which builds wonderfully from a lush and lengthy Blackman solo. With four of the six tracks presented here clocking around the nine-minute and over mark, the vigour that carries across these recordings is just a joy to experience 40 years later.
While always serving as a beacon for South Africa, and South African music and culture, so much of the performance here serves as a testament to Masekela’s global travels and western influences – having studied in London’s Guildhall School of Music and Manhattan’s School of Music, Masekela was always encouraged to explore his own musical roots but found genuine fascination with US luminaries like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. The New York-based band on show for Lesotho perfectly capture Masekela’s vision of afro-jazz making this a blissful unearthed treasure.