His is a name I've always loved to roll around my tongue for the sheer relish of its sound, but last night at the Barbican Centre, Hugh Masekela jazzed it up a whole 'nother notch.
Sooner or later musicians have to face the fact that their fans are growing old with them, and resort to churning out stuff that is tried, tested and loved by loyal listeners. But evergreen Masekela seems to have neatly sidestepped that in one fell swoop. There's his hot, young band for starters, of which the tall, athletic-looking guitarist, Cameron Ward, is guaranteed to cause many a maiden's heart to go aflutter. And then of course, there's the music, launched to the powerful sound of drums, keyboards, bass and percussions, and the still haunting, still beautiful voice of the legendary trumpeter. Ageing, who's ageing?
Zara McFarlane, the Jamaican darling on the British jazz scene, opened the night with Blossom Tree in a voice that managed to fuse a subtle old school vibe with a rich contemporary sound that reminded me of Ella Fitzgerald (whom I simply refer to as 'The Darling'). She may have performed her five sets with class and won new legions of fans, but it was clear the night belonged to Masekela if the excitement with which the audience welcomed him was anything to go by.
I was clapping wildly along with everyone, and turning to shout breathlessly to the friend I'd gone with, 'you'll love him!' to which he nodded enthusiastically. (By this time, I'd raved about him for so long that if his response hadn't matched my fervour I might have gone physical on him.)
Hugh Masekela has long been one of South Africa's most prominent figures on the international circuit, with a half-century career of playing music that depicts everything from street life to the labor of migrant workers in his native South Africa. Indeed, one of the night's best performances for me was a song about workers travelling on a train, the very sounds and whirs of this mode of transport mimicked by Masekela with spine-tingling accuracy.
The night was all the more special because of his connection with Ghana and Hedzoleh Soundz, the erstwhile band from the 70's known for their fusion of traditional Ghanaian rhythms with jazz and latin music, whom he met and later led at a time when Fela Kuti was also making waves with his style of Nigerian jazz funk. The two entities' collaborations far outlive their time together, with one of the songs, Rekpete, a hit in Ghana to the point where even I heard it occasionally while growing up. Yesterday, when the band launched into a rendition of it, I bolted out of my seat faster than you could say 'Usain' to shake it down like there was no tomorrow.
Captivating and quite the showman, Masekela was a crowd pleaser and a nimble-footed performer...and his audience loved him for it. He whipped us up with his infectious teasing ('Come on London, we know you're not as well-behaved as you'd like the world to believe - we all know what you did last summer,' referring to the riots last August), but it was the positively mischievous quip - 'There are some people in here who have never screamed, not even in bed!' - which had the audience guffawing and loosening up in the hands of this master player.
I grope for a word to describe Hugh the heck this Masekela is, to sum up the night, and fanfreakingtastic comes to mind, but his newest fan, my friend and concert partner summed it up better: 'The man has got swagga, eh!'
Indeed he has. Hugh Masekela is all that jazz.
And then some.