Hugh returns to his roots

A month after his appointment as co-director of the State Theatre, the brief appearance of Hugh Masekela at Kippie’s in downtown Johannesburg was a fitting reminder that he is both the supreme embodiment of a cultural stream that has been exiled from stately consideration, and a musical establishment in his own right.

For his followers — a rainbow lot who crammed the tiny Kippie’s every session of his four-day sojourn — this was an occasion to celebrate the acknowledgment of his contribution to South African music. But it was also a moment for Masekela himself to acknowledge their kudos.

He did so by taking his music back to its roots, demonstrating his indebtedness to the moving spirit and best tradition of jazz. Masekela is as consummate a jazz musician as he has been an exponent and developer of local music. This synthesis is personified in what can be called Masekelia, just as the musical phenomenon personified by Duke Ellington has been called Ellingtonia.

Masekela drew heavily from his classic repertoire: Stimela, Grazing in the Grass, Ntjilo Ntjilo, Free Mandela, Nomali, and so on. This was expected, and enthusiastically received. But there ended Masekela the predictable. The pieces served only as a canvas on which the musicians were to demonstrate their craft and colours. The tunes became vehicles for extensive and elaborate improvisations which gave the music a sublime depth and density.

Jimmy Dludlu on bass guitar played energetically, yet maintained a cool restraint that prevented possible excesses that could have turned his staccato strumming to Jimi Hendrix-like crescendos. Kwasi Shange on drums, though rowdy on occasion, managed to return to well-measured time-keeping, and was complemented by the evasive and finely supportive percussionist, John Hassan.

Khaya Mahlangu, on flute and tenor, the group’s musical director and “philosopher”, seemed content to bolster the deeper coherence and organic substance that the group produced so well. Mahlangu was the main anchor and stimulus that enabled Masekela to elaborate on the customary Masekelian statements.

The potential for this group to be the best that Masekela has put together so far is enormous. In effect, it could reduce his dominance while injecting his substance to produce an organic sound that would be greater than the sum of its individual parts. The over-towering Masekela would not be so much subdued as sublimated.

On average, the group played six tunes over one-and-a-half hours — 10 to 15 minutes a tune. This made improvisation the main course, and the concert a jazz event par excellence. And the tunes were liberated from a dance trance even though the rhythm was dense and strong. This was intentional, to convey the message that Masekela needs to be listened to seriously. When a rowdy group shouted “Go, Hugh, go”, he stopped playing and threatened to go home if they did not stop. At the end of the session, he pleaded that the “gods of Africa” should help people appreciate music. You gotta dig, really.

Masekela at Kippie’s put paid to the view that he is no longer creative, but just resting on his reputation. It’s a perception that seems credible, given both his immense success — which often spawns complacency — and middle-age. Bra Hugh ain’t that young no more, and the elder statesman status has fallen on him with ease. But, at Kippie’s, his format and on-stage playing were fresh and inspiring, pointing at things still to come.

It is no paradox that Masekela, who for three decades abroad played an Africentric or home-brewed music, should now return to jazz-based explorations. He is at the vanguard of a new musical development that is emerging.

Masekela senses this. In closing the concerts, he revealed great expectations when he said: “After 30 years of exile, I am pleased that South Africa can produce good musicians in spite of isolation.” He seems determined to add his stately weight to their development.

The Sunday afternoon concert at Kippie’s by the Soweto Youth Jazz Orchestra vindicated this hope. The orchestra, made up of students of the Mano Technical College in Dobsonville, performed an array of classic jazz pieces. Tunes by Joe Zawinul (Mercy, Mercy, Mercy and Birdland), Charlie Parker (Billy’s Bounce, Now’s the Time) and Thelonious Monk (Well, You Needn’t) were played with vigour and technical finesse. The group’s solid jazz and overall musical grounding are beyond doubt; so, too, is their rootedness in local music.

With trumpet virtuoso Prince Lengoasa as one of their tutors, the orchestra could become a powerhouse in producing solid jazz musicians, much as Fuba has done. By the way, Lengoasa’s solo on Some Day My Prince Will Come, a tune made a classic jazz vehicle by Davis, was remarkable for its self-conscious effort to avoid Milesian licks and clichés. That he succeeded is a tribute to the urge to sound original; should this spirit take root among his students, it will contribute to the search for an authentic jazz sound.

Truly, jazz is alive and set to live long in this country. Kippie’s should continue its safari.

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