Posted: December 31st, 2008
Born and raised in the hell of South African apartheid, Hugh Masekela triumphed over oppression by wielding what Fela Kuti referred to as the weapon of the future–music. The young Masekela was first introduced to the trumpet (his future weapon) by anti-apartheid activist Father Trevor Huddleston. In a few short years, Masekela had developed into a raw but powerful player. Beginning in the mid-’50s, he was one of the most sought after musicians in all of Africa, partnering up with such luminaries as pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (aka Dollar Brand) and singer Miriam Makeba. Finding solidarity and a spirit of resistance in their music, Masekela and his contemporaries took inspiration from America’s more politically outspoken black artists, particularly Miles Davis and Paul Robeson.
American jazz was looked upon as a very high African art. We were living an urban life, and our only role models were African Americans, and their experiences as we understood them from films and records.
Irrepressibly talented, Masekela knew that no amount of foreign inspiration could help him to overcome the obstacles facing a black man in his native country. As his star rose, he strained against the shackles.
Our music was always a basic political threat. We were all relegated to a third class existence, but we excelled in music, and our talent was one thing they couldn’t take away. We were blocked a lot, by the white musicians’ union, and we hardly ever got paid, but it was all done out of love…When I was 19, I had already peaked in South Africa, but there wasn’t much to ‘peak up to’.
At the urging of Makeba and the sponsorship of Harry Belafonte, Masekela left his homeland and went into exile. He enrolled at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music in 1960, with Belafonte picking up the tab and buying him a new flugelhorn. For the sensational young African musician, New York opened up to him a whole new world of possibilities.
The excellence of people like Miles Davis and Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, that could only be achieved in the States. And by the time I got my passport, Sharpeville and the uprising were in full flow, and I knew that with my temperament, I would have soon been killed, imprisoned or forced into exile anyway.
In New York of the early and mid-’60s, Masekela was celebrated and befriended by the giants of jazz, who were drawn to the unfiltered sounds of Mother Africa flowing through his trumpet. African-American musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Cannonball Adderley were busy incorporating African concepts into their music, while their young African protÃ©gÃ© was struggling to develop the technical virtuosity needed to play American be-bop and hard-bop. As he polished up on his chops, Masekela’s playing began drifting away from its African roots. But no matter how hard he tried to keep up, Hugh was no Miles Davis. In his autobiography, Miles recall some sage advice he gave Masekela:
Every time I saw him I told him to just keep on doing his own thing rather than trying to play what we were playing over here. After a while I think he started listening to me, because his playing got better.
As the ’60s wore on, Masekela began to move with the times. He updated his image by playing trumpet on the Byrds hit “So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Star” and performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. The next year he hit it big on his own with “Grazing In The Grass,” which went to #1 in both the pop and R&B charts. Riding on a waning wave of popular success, he returned home to Africa in 1970, joining Makeba for a tour of Guinea. It was there that he first met Nigerian Afrobeat king Fela Kuti and the Ghanian band Hedzoleh Soundz. Kuti was setting Africa (and soon the world) on fire with his James Brown influenced brand of Nigerian jazz–funk. Kuti’s large ensemble of musicians plunked down thick chunks of interlocking rhythms over which his saxophone (and his stable of female dancers) could endlessly groove. Like the pre-New York Masekela, Kuti’s playing was incredibly soulful but technically limited.
Having overcome his own technical limitations, Masekela brought to the table a certain level of musicianship that was previously missing from Afrobeat. He felt incredibly recharged being back in Africa, ready to reconquer the continent and take the music higher. Shedding his adopted American style, he plunged deep into the Afrobeat. He hooked up with the Hedzoleh Soundz, an extremely talented band known for blending the ancient rhythmic traditions of their native Ghana with American jazz and Latin music. For Masekela it was a perfect fit, and his playing never sounded more organic, reflecting the joy of finally being able to express every bit of his musical genius through his African soul. “I found a certain vitality in Afrobeat. Playing with the band (Hedzoleh Soundz) was like being on a big fat cloud. You couldn’t fall off.”
Recorded in Lagos, Nigeria in 1973, Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz represents the culmination of Masekela’s career-long efforts to fuse the improvisational drive of jazz with the ageless rhythms of Africa. No real equivalent of this record exists anywhere. It is one of the most perfectly realized excursions by a notable jazz musician into an authentic form of African music. And no other indigenous Afrobeat or Afro-jazz-funk album surpasses the musicianship and creative energy of this one. Masekela’s trumpet rides upon a roiling sea of African rhythms, awash with ideas and emotion. The music draws you in so completely that the need to flip the record feels like a rude awakening.
The hallmark of a great album is that it kicks off with an opening track so compelling that it forces all those within earshot to shut-up and listen. “Languta” not only accomplishes that, but actually overrides all voluntary muscle control, causing the listener to spontaneously break into dance. At the same time, a dumb, blissed-out smile spreads uncontrollably across the face as one is exposed to the volatile tribal rhythms of the Hedzoleh Soundz. A rash of goose bumps rolls across the skin in reaction to Masekela’s blistering trumpet runs and belted out African vocals. The mind struggles to steady itself against the fast swirling waves of echo-effected trumpet that brings this possessed song to its Afrodelic climax. Not likely to be confused with background music, this song heralds the record’s journey into the dark heart of the funk.
But with the darkness comes the light. Deeper into the album, “Nye Tamo Ame” dances like a tropical ray of sunshine upon the soul. You’d be hard pressed to find any music that feels this good. I don’t speak a word of Zulu or Ghanian, but I know in my heart that Masekela and the Hedzoleh Soundz are singing about something sweet, spreading a musical message of love that bridges the language barrier. Smile, this is not just music for the feet.
More exceptionally powerful songs follow, thick with bass and percussion, hypnotizing minds and shredding time to ribbons. Back where he started, Masekela revelled in the joy of making African music, forgetting the past ghetto pain, the obligatory displays of technical prowess, the commercial pressures–liberated in the exuberance of the moment. “Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow,” pronounced the P-Funk prophet George Clinton in 1970. That same year Hugh Masekela left Nixon’s America to embark on a spiritual homecoming, a soul expanding African journey that resulted in his Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz. Ahhhh…those were the days.
- Hugh Masekela â€“ Trumpet & Vocals
- Stanley Kwesi Todd â€“ Electric Bass & Vocals
- James Kwaku Morton â€“ Congas & Vocals
- Nat â€œLeepumaâ€ Hammond â€“ Congas, Flute & Vocals
- Richard Neesai â€œJaggerâ€ Botchway â€“ Guitar
- Isaac Asante â€“ Talking Drum, Percussion & Vocals
- Samuel Nortey â€“ Percussion & Vocals
- Acheampong Welbeck â€“ Drums
- Kaa Ye Oya
- Yei Baa Gbe Wolo
- Nye Tamo Ame
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