Hugh Masekala

Trumpet legend with full South African band.
Oxford Playhouse, 13 May 2007

May 14, 2007
Live performance – be it dance, theatre or music – can, on occasion, be seen as a political act. With Hugh Masekela it is impossible to divorce the man from the mission. Born into apartheid in South Africa, he received his first trumpet from the equality crusading Archbishop Trevor Huddleston; learning to play it from Uncle Saude of the Johannesburg ‘Native’ Municipal Brass Band. The aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre prompted his leaving South Africa with the help of the Archbishop, who had by then been deported for his stand on equality. With the help of Johnny Dankworth and Yehudi Menuhin he studied at London’s Guildhall School of Music, while Miriam Makeba, Harry Belafonte and Dizzy Gillespie aided his admission to the Manhattan School of Music.

The rest, as they say, is history: Hugh Masekela is one of the most widely respected figures of Jazz and World Music; an innovative trumpet and flugel horn player, and a champion of human rights. He has worked with pretty much anybody who is anybody in World Music and Jazz circles. And he really rocks!

The sun came out late on Sunday evening, but it stayed out until about 10pm at the Playhouse. Backed by a phenomenal band he entertained a full house with a set that combined the best of bebop with songs that drew on African influences from township harmony to Palm Wine rock. The, initially, politely enthusiastic audience were eventually prised from their seats by a combination of gentle urging and intoxicating rhythms to sway and groove in time with the masterful performance. Wonderful ensemble playing was liberally sprinkled with such virtuosity, especially from sax player Ngenekhaya Mahlangu, and sense of enjoyment that the two and a half hours flew.

Stand-out tracks were ‘The Boy’s Doin’ It’ and ‘Stimela' ('Coal Train)’ which were both performed with abandoned intensity and suitably appreciated by the crowd. A particular favourite for me was ‘District Six’, as I had recently read the poem by Tatamkulu Africa with the same name. But picking stand-outs from such a wonderfully well performed set is always going to be an act of personal preference. The music was the star, and the musicians its standard bearers. Sello Montwedi (drums), Francis Fuster (percussion), Abednigo Zulu (6 string bass), Okantse Moilwa and Arthur Tshabalala (keyboards), John Selolwane (guitar and vocals), Ngenekhaya Mahlangu (tenor saxophone and vocals) and Hugh Masekela (flugel horn and vocals) wove magical music and made us all dance. Even my mother-in-law!
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