Our Daily Bread 272: Hugh Masekela ’66-‘76

May 1, 2018

COMPILATION REVIEW: DOMINIC VALVONA



Hugh Masekela   ‘’66-‘76’   Wrasse Records,  20th April 2018

Masekela as the exile. Masekela as the trumpet maestro. Masekela as the bandleader. Masekela as the activist. Masekela as the colonial revisionist. Masekela as the angry young man. These are just some of the many faces of the South African titan of jazz and African musical fusions Hugh Masekela that can be found inside the latest essential collection of the late great polymaths’ back durable catalogue, ’66-’76. Put together especially by Masekela and his good friend, producer and collaborator on a number of projects together, Stewart Levine, just before he passed away in January of 2018, this three disc spanning collection features key tracks from many of his most iconic and experimental albums (two of which are included in their entirety). What makes this especially appealing to collectors and fans alike, is that many of these albums were never officially released in the UK and Europe before. Progressing in the chronological order they were recorded, we follow Masekela’s journey not just musically but politically across his most formative decade and his collaborative partnership with Levine.

Originally crossing paths in New York in 1961, a year after Masekela first arrived in the States after narrowly avoiding arrest in his native South Africa for breaking the apartheid system draconian ‘pass laws’, Levine, a Bronx native, met the aspiring horn player as he searched for a decent break on the American east coast jazz scene. They both enrolled that same year into the Manhattan School of Music, sharing a room together. In the years to come this hotbed, an incubator for some of the greatest jazz musicians of the last five decades, would turn out countless additions to Masekela’s changing lineup of recording sessions and live backing groups. But during those initial years, Levine and Masekela would, after graduating, split and go their separate ways, pursuing different pathways: Masekela, emulating the jazz doyens that inspired him to move across the Atlantic, and Levine, choosing production.

Years later, in ’66, and sharing not only a bond of friendship but love of Africana and American music, the pair reunited to setup a production company, the intention being to make records that combined jazz, the dancing Township sounds of South Africa and the grooves and sounds of Rhythm and Blues. This partnership, fortunately funded by seed money from some generous benefactor, quickly moved its operation to the West Coast and L.A. in the fall of that same year. Christened Chisa Records, the inaugural album, The Emancipation Of Hugh Masekela (which starts off this whole collection) featured the hybrid signature sound that the company and Masekela himself would be celebrated for. And as the title makes clear, would not shy away from black consciousness issues and struggles: not only in his native homeland, but also in his exiled home of America.





Dressed up as a smiling Abraham Lincoln on the cover, this quite withheld and effortlessly played album features the ‘working group’ of Manhattan School luminaries of musicians that backed him at club spots in the infamous Watts and on Sunset Strip: Harry Bellefonte’s (who will crop up again in this story, and have much to do with Masekela through the civil rights movement) travelling bass player at the time, John Cartwright, joins congas legend Big Black, drummer Chuck Carter and pianist Charlie Smalls, whose unique and open style of playing brought gospel and a lilt of Brazil to the set up; especially on the opening sumptuous Felicade. Over seven tracks, this live recording soaks up sauntering big band Highlife (Why Are You Blowing My Mind?), calypso via Soweto, trumpet heralding lullaby (Do Me So La So So) and yearned Sun Ra breaks bread with the Last Poets hippie jazz (Child Of The Earth).

Moving on with a rotating cast of players, only Carter on drums remaining an anchor on the next trio of albums, another New Yorker, saxophonist Al Abreu, would come into the fold – a member up until his untimely tragic death in car accident just a couple years later in ’69 – joined by Cape Town pianist Cecil Barnard and L.A. local jazz bassist Henry Franklin on the dynamite live ‘67 Alive And Well At The Whiskey. As the title suggests, lighting up the Sunset Stripe institution, the Whiskey A Go Go, Masekela’s altered troupe –changed after appearing at that year’s Monterey Pop Festival – fused a lively but controlled suite of Savoy jazz meets Motown poetic lamentable peace and love; the two featured tracks here, Son Of Ice Bag and Coincidence posing the chance of a better future.

That same group, and similar theme, appears on the next album, the phenomenally successful The Promise Of A Future. Recorded in less than an hour, the defining lulled cowbell-ringing track on that album, and as it would turn out most popular selling record of his career (more than three million copies; hitting the number one spot on the American pop charts), Grazing In The Grass helped Masekela reach a bigger audience commercially but also ended up hindering him long term; the expectation to follow up its success sending the cold footed doyen of fusion towards the insular and more experimental, refusing outright to repeat the same formula. Sampled excessively by the Hip-Hop fraternity, and so once again made popular for a new generation, the recognizable candour and busyness of this track, featuring the soft yielding licks of Bruce Langhorne, would be avoided on the darker, more direct and politically motivated barbed soul Masekela LP that followed it.





Already unique, incorporating the soul of South African music with jazz, rhythm and blues and South American grooves, The Promise Of A Better Future featured some fine iterations including the tribal Pharoah Sanders spiritual longing of These Are Seeds To Sow, and Caribbean swayed Vuca.

Whilst Grazing In The Grass was enjoying its popularity in the summer of ’68, America’s civil rights movement was hit, literally, with a double tragedy. In April Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, mortally wounded on a motel balcony in Memphis, and just two months later, Bobby Kennedy joined the fate of his brother, and was shot dead at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Riots lit up across the country and to all intents and purposes it looked like a concentrated effort was being made to off the civil rights leaders and friends, and to top it all the Vietnam War. In this incubator of inflamed passions, Masekela produced an album suffused with the stench of teargas and mace. Certainly angry, yet his statement of protest and succinctly named Masekela album was far from a blistering howl of rage. Closer to his peers own cathartic jazz albums of the same era, a sense of trying to work out just what the hell was going on, it resembles a gospel lament, a bluesy funk and most cooing experiment in despair.

Covering the escalating Vietnam protests (Mace And Grenades), the gold greedy excavating harsh realities and sorrows of the a South Africa miner, and the black majority’s uneasy struggle with the Boer colonists (Gold, Boermusiek), and famous controversial figures from the Black Panther movement (Blues For Huey), Masekela was a commercial failure on its release; spooking an audience familiar with the hit record, which evidently despite its lightness and catchy feel has origins in the townships of Masekela’s native homeland. It led to an amicable but nevertheless a split with the distributors, but allowed the Masekela and Levine partnership the freedom to continue pursuing the agenda they envisioned. It’s a good place to end the first CD on, as the next chapter opens on a move towards spiritual rejuvenation in Africa.





CD number two begins with Masekela and Levine’s 1970 ‘autonomous’ distribution deal with Motown. As part of this deal they’d also record albums with the South African singer Letta Mbulu and the Texas troupe The Jazz Crusaders (also known as The Crusaders). This would prove handy; as both went on to appear on Masekela’s own records.

The inaugural Motown album, Reconstruction, features a varied songbook of Pharoah Sanders spiritual rolling jazz (Salele Mane), languid veldt swooned and sweetly laced balladry (Woza) and the most delicious sounding of earthy soul covers from the Motown cannon (You Keep Me Hangin’ On). Featuring a heavy rotation again of players and backing singers, the album showcases Masekela’s subtleties and eclecticism; merging as he does the music and soul of two continents into a most peaceable fusion.

Keeping the political language conspicuous, if anything Reconstruction concentrates on setting the vibe, the messages echoed in the diverse nature and continuous exploration of his roots.

The next album in this collection brought Masekela together with two of his fellow compatriots, Jonas Gwangwa of the Johannesburg formed Jazz Epistles and the composer and singer Caiphus Semenya. The title says it all: Hugh Masekela And The Union Of South Africa. And the music is, as you’d expect, heavy on these influences. Yet the album features those unshakable R&B licks and southern gospel organ dabs, ala Billy Preston. This is in part down to the inclusion of the Texan soul group The Crusaders, manning the rhythm section.

It’s a beautiful communion between melting funk and elliptic rhythms of South Africa; another successful crossover; rasping yearns accompanied by the snozzled affectionate and caressing trumpet of Masekela, unmistakably South African but enriched with southern funk and soul.





Returning to his jazz roots, and once again emulating two of the artists that first inspired him, Masekela’s next record would take a pause and lean heavily towards the romantic Savoy and early Blue Note jazz of Horace Silver and Art Blakey. The Home Is Where The Music Is LP is only represented by one track. But what a track it is! With Larry Willis, another Manhattan School of Music luminary, invited to add virtuoso piano; South African jazz great Dudu Phunkwana brought in on alto saxophone (Masekela especially moved operations for this record to London, home of this South African exile at the time) and future Bill Evans band member Eddie Gomez on bass, this consummate set-up created fertile ground for a diaphanous and deep suite of romantic and thoughtful jazz meditations.

Lifted from that album, Minawa showcases the cascading flow and gestured pianist skills of Willis (a member of Masekela’s first group in ’65; featured on the live album, The Americanization Of Ooga Booga), who carries the deft track for some time before Makaya Ntshoko’s tumbling and staggered drums appear and Masekela’s lilting accentuate trumpet fluctuates over the top. Gradually it builds with motion and increases in tempo and volume until striking home; the busyness calmly retreating and pace, intensity dissipated.

His next album would be very different however. Another change in direction (of a Sort), the jazz fading for a more African feel. Bound for a ‘spiritual journey back to Africa’ after spending thirteen years in America, Masekela travelled from Guinea to Liberia and Zaire searching for inspiration and the musicians that would back him on his next musical adventure. Preempted by fate, an invitation from Nigeria’s Afrobeat progenitor and lifetime ruler of the self-invented Kalakula Republic, Fela Kuti, brought Masekela to Lagos in the spring of ’73. Though enjoying his time at Kuti’s compound kingdom, he accomplished little creatively. A tip from Kuti about a must-see act, a perfect fit for Masekela’s brand of African fusions, the Ghanaian-based Hedzoleh Soundz, did however pay off.

Joining his Nigerian guide, who brought a cortège of his wives with him, Kuti took Masekela to Accra to see for himself this adulated young outfit. Catching a midnight killer set at The Napoleon Club, he was instantly hooked. And so began a congruous collaboration between the two that would last in varied formats across the next three albums.

Introducing marked that initial dynamism; Masekela channeling what would be a month-long partnership, the South African virtuoso playing with the Soundz every single night. Kuti arranged a recording session for them both at the E.M.I. studios back in Lagos in the summer of that same year. The results of which, featured in their entirety on the second CD of this collection, combine the lilting soul of South Africa with the busy tribal percussion of West Africa: The atavistic talking drums, floating flute and relaxed but tight percussion traversing Afro funk and roots music brilliantly.

Wowing those back in the States, the group would be brought over for a special tour, beginning with a performance in Washington D.C. in January of ’74, finishing with a sold-out fortnight at the famous Troubadour club in L.A.





The final section of this triple CD set opens with Masekela’s ’74 album I Am Not Afraid. Recorded immediately after the successful stateside tour with the Soundz, the cross-pollination was once more mixed up with the inclusion of Crusaders Joe Sample and Stix Hooper: Invited in to mix their infectious Texan R&B and jazz lilt with the Soundz soulful funky tribal percussions to make, what would become, a great pop record.

Included in its entirety (the second of only two such privileges), I Am Not Afraid is considered by Levine to be one of the highlights of his time producing Masekela’s most formative albums. And he’d be right. Encapsulating all the various strands thus far, the album is both a fearless but beautifully accessible work of art. The highly popular grassland hymn, come sweeping grand minor jazzy-soul opus, Stimela, is just one highlight from what is a bright African odyssey. Setting moods perfectly, following on from a theme and location that has been used time and again by all the titans of jazz, Masekela transports the listener to mysterious nights in Tunisia, the bustling kaleidoscopic ‘market place’, and tempts us through a the meandrous jungle. The swansong, Been Such A Long Time Gone, is almost a reprise of all the previous songs; a connecting final lyrical geographical journey in the sweltering heat through history, one that takes in the sight and sounds of North and West Africa; ending up drifting down the Nile towards the Fertile Crescent.





In the same year, 1974, Masekela and Levine set up the famous musical jamboree to celebrate Ali’s titanic grudge-match with Foreman in Zaire. Part of a campaign and African revolution in directing their own affairs, with now more or less every former colony of the European powers independent, the pair were, with good intentions, drawn into a feverish Zaire renaissance. The abhorrent truths of some of these regimes, notably Zaire’s own Mobutu, would years later put paid to the general optimism, but at the time in striking a coup with hosting one of the most anticipated clashes of the century the country’s capital of Kinshasa became the hottest ticket on the global stage. The same label behind this compilation also released the fruits of Masekela and Levine’s musical stage show, the Zaire ’74 soundtrack, a while back: a collection with the emphasis on the all too forgotten African acts who performed at the three day extravaganza, previously overshadowed by the stars of America, such as James Brown, and all but erased or featured sporadically in subsequent documentaries.

Returning to the states in the fall of ’74, temporarily settling in the capital, Masekela hit the ground running, assembling his new African band; first recruiting two Hedzoleh Soundz members, percussionist Asante and bassist Stanley Todd, his drummer brother Frankie and fellow Ghanaian, shekere player Odinga ‘Guy’ Warren. Recent arrivals from Nigeria, O.J. Ekemode, Yaw Opoku and Adelja Gboyega and another Ghanaian, conga maestro (famous for his turn on The Stones’ Sympathy For The Devil) Rocky Dzidzornu boosted the already dynamic and highly talented ranks. Taking this new troupe out onto the road in ’75, wowing audiences wherever they went, Masekela was soon lined-up for another recording session. Old pal and boss of the then new label Casablanca signed them up after witnessing one of these infamous performances; making them the label’s inaugural signing. The Boy’s Doin’ It is the result. Serious but funky, given a Casablanca label sheen, yet still rustically bustling and earthy, there is some very bright serenading going on: especially on the lilting homage to Mama. Masekela, as an aside, would open for the funk progenitor George Clinton on his ‘insane’ tour: the sounds of the motherland going down well with those fans of the Funkadelic and Parliament icon.

Dressed as the captain, mocking the European explorers that stamped their name and ideals on the ‘so-called’ new world, on the cover of the last album in this three-disc spanning collection, Masekela intelligently and ironically channels the Colonial Man of the title. Musically crisscrossing the slave routes from Africa to the Americas, he takes his intrepid troupe (now assembled under the OJAH moniker) on a tropical sauntered voyage.

Hardly a raging post-colonial diatribe or resented seething tide of angry protest, the album was still seen as high risk, though Casablanca gave it their blessing. Commercially it bombed. Yet it is a fantastic album. Certainly, and quite rightly, the themes of colonization, enslavement and stripping a country’s wealth had until recent times been missing the victims and poor unfortunates experiences. A vocal activist on both sides of the Atlantic (though he believed that unlike South Africa, the black population in America would always struggle for parity whilst the population was majority white European; he had more optimism for overcoming apartheid in his native homeland, returning there in the 80s), Masekela eases through the themes on this most sophisticated, longing album.

From the salty sea foam lullaby sauntering of making it ashore on the Brazilian coast (A Song For Brazil) to liltingly cutting a passage through the interior of Africa, following in Dr. Livingstone’s footprints, weaving in the ivory trade and Conrad’s Congo (Witch Doctor), this fusion of continents is a clever, poetic purview of colonization. It is the perfect end to a great collection.





Probably by now much of the material has become available in some format or another, yet for fans and casual interested parties alike it proves a wonderful, enlightening compilation; and in the wake of Hugh Masekela’s death earlier this year, a brilliant tribute to one of the greats. Not to do a disservice to his dear friend, label co-owner, producer and partner on many projects together, this is also a welcome reminder and celebration of Stewart Levine; the guiding force behind so many of Masekela’s richest albums. 66-76 will prove to be both an essential collection of a most creative period, and a great introduction to those who are not so aware of this great legacy.

 

Dominic Valvona

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