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Hugh Masekela

Swyer Theatre @ The Egg, Albany, NY
April 13, 2006

by J Hunter

Jazz musicians have to be survivors, given the economic and cultural roadblocks they face. Then again, all that is ephemeral when compared to what Hugh Masekela had to go through to reach this time and place. The 68-year old South African horn player was an exile for over two decades from a country that persecuted him and imprisoned him in the days of apartheid. That is a survivor!

Masekela became an international star during that period, and has developed into one of the key purveyors of World Music. But it can be argued that all the pain and suffering in his early days helped make the joyful, soulful musician that opened his American tour at the Swyer Theatre. Anyone can sing a protest song about the inhuman things Man does to his fellow Man. Hugh Masekela lived these things during his time in the townships, and when he sang about the miners (both dead and alive) in “Stimela”, you felt every inch of the sorrow that permeated these people's existence.

I also said Masekela was joyful, and not because every yin needs a yang. Every dance move he made, every hip shake, every smile, every note he played with his young, talented sextet was a celebration of life - not just a life that survived all Masekela had, but the life we all go through every day. Yes, he lived to see (in his words) “Nelson Mandela and the other old geezers” walk out of prison, and that is obviously still a miracle to him. But, put simply, Hugh Masekela loves what he does, and loves that he's living, and he encouraged the crowd more than once to join him in that feeling.

“This is your chance,” Masekela advised us when he asked the crowd to sing along with “The Boy's Doin' It”. The crowd took his advice (both then and during the show closer, “Nelson Mandela”) to get up and dance & sing. Many didn't need coaxing, as the number of dancers in the top row of the Swyer got larger as the night went on. Masekela didn't need to ask people to get up for “District Six”, a cut off his new disc Revival (Heads Up International), or for “Grazin' In The Grass”, which closed the first set. The roar of the crowd - both at the beginning and at the end of the latter song - showed how well the 1962 ht has held up, and how great this extended version was.

You couldn't stay in your seat at this show; the groove was just too good, and Masekela's ensemble made sure that groove never stopped. Drummer Sello Montwedi and 6-string bassist Abednigo Zulu were the musical equivalent of a 12-cylinder engine all night long. Sax/flute player Ngenekhaya Mahlangu played through early sound problems & burned on his solos when he wasn't dancing across the stage with Masekela, both musicians keeping time on cowbells. John Selolwane's guitar had a wonderful church-bell quality, and he augmented it with an engaging scat style that reminded some of us how good George Benson was before he went all Luther Vandross on us.

Masekela spent more time singing and playing percussion that he did playing his flugelhorn, and when he did pick his horn up, the chops weren't always there. They did jump up on occasion, though; Masekela's dissonant reference to “Star Spangled Banner” during “Stimela” was both powerful and ironic, given the current immigration debate that has a hold on this country. But this night wasn't about chops. It was about the groove, and the vibe Masekela brought to us with both energy and love.

Music is a great uniter - World Music doubly so, since it asks us to ignore all the musical and cultural barriers society tells us we should have. Hugh Masekela can still play, but more importantly, he can still kick down barriers. He reminds us that bad times (and bad governments) don't last, and that joy will triumph over evil. That's the best reason to dance I can think of.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.