Thursday, December 09, 2010

Hugh Masekela “Jabulani”

With Jabulani (Gallo, 2010), the iconic and legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela has not only issued his very best recording since his 2002 album Time, but may have finally released one of the best and most singularly important musical documents of his entire career.

According to Bra Hugh himself, when he was a boy in South Africa weddings were always celebrated with many songs.

“The betrothed’s young neighbours, friends and relations,” says Masekela in his liner notes, ”would conduct a nightly wedding songs choir practice from dusk until close to midnight, marching up and down the street, singing the most beautiful songs accompanied by occasional, very intricate choreographed moves which were a pure joy to witness.” Although these sorts of traditions have long since disappeared, Masekela concludes that “(t)his is a tribute to the township weddings of yester year. I pray that these kinds of wedding celebrations can come back into our lives.”

One listen to Jabulani makes it easy to understand why. These are beautiful, joyous songs, filled with hope, great happiness and a positive sense of love that is life affirming. It’s everything that so much of Hugh Masekela’s best music has always strived for. It’s also the most comfortable and inspired the trumpeter (who is on flugelhorn throughout here), vocalist and musical Svengali has ever sounded on record – from the very first track to the last.

It’s a rare occasion that Hugh Masekela has set out to do something exactly the way he wanted to do it, without regard for corporate or commercial considerations. I can think of only a few times this has ever occurred – and succeeded – namely on Grrr (1965), Hugh Masekela and the Union of South Africa (1971), Home Is Where The Music Is (1972), I Am Not Afraid (1974), Tomorrow (1986), Sixty (1999) and Time (2002) [Note: this is not to say that there aren’t plenty more notable recordings sprinkled throughout Hugh Masekela’s discography. But these I’ve named rank among Masekela’s most completely satisfying statements. To these I would add Africa ‘68, but this is unfortunately not appropriately credited solely to Hugh Masekela.] Jabulani now ranks among the most significant of Hugh Masekela’s recordings.

Here, Hugh Masekela reunites with producer Don Laka, who produced and contributed greatly to the trumpeter’s 1998 album Black to the Future, a number of songs from which ended up appearing on the 2000 semi-compilation Grazing in the Grass: The Best of Hugh Masekela (aka Greatest Hits). The two also worked together on the Umoja: The Spirit of Togetherness (2001) soundtrack.

Without great pretense or artifice, Laka and Masekela concoct a program of eleven dynamic tunes. Two of these, “Bambezela” and “Rosie My Girl” feature vocalist Gugu Shezi, who has worked with Mafikizolo, Ringo Madlingozi, Judith Sephuma and Sibongile Khumalo, while “Tsoang Tsoang” features “The Village Pope” and long-time Masekela aide-de-camp Tshepo (also Tsepo) Tshola (Masekela produced and participated on two really great Tshola discs, Winding Rivers and Waterfalls and New Dawn) .

Much of the music, as you’d expect, is traditional and some of it may even be familiar to those who enjoy South African mbanqanga music. Each song sounds familiar and timeless and Masekela and Laka don’t allow too much technology to come in and fuss it all up. Masekela not only provides the vocals on each track but allows plenty of space for his flugelhorn throughout too. And he’s rarely sounded this good or this enthusiastically driven on his horn.

Many are the highlights on this fine and often exciting record. But for special attention, I would call out “Sossie,” “Fiela,” “Bambazela” (which Masekela brilliantly worked into his 1984 medley “The Seven Riffs of Africa” from Techno-Bush), “Iph’ Indlela” (probably best known to American ears by the stunningly gorgeous version Harry Belafonte did on the Grammy Award winning album from 1965, An Evening With Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba), “Tsoang Tsoang,” “Makoti (Bride)” (which Miriam Makeba sung with the Skylarks in 1959 before leaving South Africa), “Mfana” (which Masekela cut in 1968 as part of an American studio group called The Johannesburg Street Band as “No Passport” for the album Dancin’ Through The Streets - it was later re-titled “Awe Mfana” when it was included on the 2006 CD compilation Hugh Masekela Presents The Chisa Years – 1965-1975 (Rare and Unreleased)), “Uyeyeni” and a surprisingly effective Asiatic take on “No Harvest (Asilimanga)” (which Miriam Makeba performed so memorably in 1968 on her miraculous Makeba album, which also featured a cover of this disc’s “Iph’ Indlela”).

Some of the press coverage I’ve seen considers Jabulani, which was issued in South Africa at the end of September (I know of no plan to issue the album in the U.S. or Europe), Hugh Masekela’s 28th studio album. While I count 33 studio releases (including the two albums Masekela co-led with Herb Alpert in the late 1970s), it makes no difference. Coming a full half century after some of Hugh Masekela’s very first recordings, the magnificent Jabulani is one of his very best.

Jabulani is available from One World and

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