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Bra Hugh: Black to the Future

“There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi. Choo! There is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe. Choo! There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique. Choo! This train carries young and old, African men who are conscripted to work on contract in the golden mineral mines of Johannesburg. Choo! Choo!”

Freewheeling drums and electrified bass rain sheets of Afro-rock fire into Bra Hugh Masekela’s iconic anthem, Stimela.

It’s a spectacular opening gambit, its emotional impact heightened by Hugh’s subtly quoting the “Nksosi Sikele” refrain in between jiving pantsula style. Friday night’s Joy of Jazz finale. Hugh’s holding court.

Sure, this might be the same showmanship spiel as always, but at 72 he rocks the mic harder than anyone. Who else could bring BEE businessmen, designer socialite divas, prime time politicians and conscious young party people together? Who else could fuse jazz, Afrobeaten funk rock and oral praise poetry into a timeless anthem about liberation?

As we move politically from the finger clicking jazz generation of Thabo Mbeki’s ANC old guard to the booty shaking rhythms of Juju’s kwaito generation of fast cars and pay as you go populism, one has to question what we have to lose and gain?

What Hugh’s barnstorming performance showed us is that we disregard the wisdom of of our elders at our peril. Be loud, be proud, be ghetto fabulous, be a BEE brat, be a tender-preneur. Just don’t forget to sit humbly at Tata’s knee and listen.

Joyous, nostalgic celebrations
“We’re going to play music from a diverse cross-section of African culture,” Hugh declares. He invites satin ‘n lace bedecked Afro-soul siren Putuma Thiso on stage to be-jazzle audiences with a pair of spiritually sassy township wedding songs off Phola and Jabulani.

The crowd swoon to these joyous, nostalgic celebrations of happiness, love and hope. The ladies in the house squeal with delight when he welcomes Vosloorus soul jazz smoothies Complete back on stage to resurrect the vintage Afro doo wop stylings of The Manhattan Brothers.

Hugh himself is sounding more confident, more relaxed, more inspired than he has in decades. He’s happy to drop a simple two-bar trumpet solo into the acid jazzy mix or add a soulful backing vocal sigh to the earthy township tones.

Something wonderful has happened to Hugh since he turned 70. He’s honed his legendary showmanship into a gnarly old dude’s sense of humour. Nowhere more so than on an epic 15 minute jam cut from Fela Kuti’s electrified Afrobeaten funk rock cloth. Watching Hugh scat, sing, pidgin and pantomime his way through a war of the sexes parable, flashing his pot belly in “high heels” was outrageously refreshing. Taking tips, Juju?

Jazz is an art form that takes a lifetime to learn. And Hugh mainlined a lifetime of musical experience into his performance. He’s lived, he’s loved. He’s overcome apartheid. He’s felt exile. He’s survived sex, drugs and a marriage to Miriam Makeba. Watching the septuagenarian showman strut his stuff you couldn’t help but wonder: what cool, crazy, beautiful music would Moses Molelekwa, Kippie Moeketsi, Johnny Dyani or Mongezi Feza have been making now if they hadn’t died?

Rock’s Holy Grail may well be “live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse”. But in jazz the destination is always the journey.

For more updates from the Standard Bank Joy of jazz, see our special report, and follow Miles Keylock on Twitter.

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Miles Keylock
Guest Author

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