sun 21/07/2024

Hugh Masekela, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Hugh Masekela, Barbican Hall

Hugh Masekela, Barbican Hall

The elder statesman of South African jazz pulls out all the stops

Hugh Masekela: still a charismatic and energetic performerChris Saunders

I must confess I wasn’t particularly looking forward to last night’s concert from the great elder statesman of South African music. This was largely because his most recent album Jabulani – recorded as a tribute to all the township weddings he went to as a child and youth – was marred by sentimentality and a lacklustre production. But then again one obviously shouldn’t be expecting the music of a 73-year-old to still be as fired-up as the work he produced in his prime.

However, it quickly became apparent that Masekela wasn’t simply here to flog the new album. This is a musician who clearly still likes to have as much fun as the audience who has come to see him. Looking coolly chic and charismatic in charcoal grey trousers and matching shirt, the jazz legend immediately showed he meant business with some nifty dance moves that most men half his age would have had trouble executing. Perhaps a backing band of young musicians keeps Masekela literally on his toes, because he didn’t stop moving for two hours. When he wasn’t singing or playing the flugelhorn, he was getting half a dozen different notes out of a cowbell or vigorously shaking a tambourine.

The crowd lapped it up when he teased them for their English reserve, in an absurd English accent

I suppose it goes without saying that one of South Africa’s greatest living musicians should have a great band, but the 22-year-old guitarist Cameron Ward switched so effortlessly from George Benson-style light jazz, to Congolese soukous, to full-on rock lead, it was hard to take your eyes off him whenever he was playing at full tilt. As was the case when Masekela put the flugelhorn to his lips. His playing was as fluid and supple as his dance movements. He’s never been a showy player, hellbent on blasting out as many notes as possible in as short a space of time, so perhaps his laid-back linear style is easier to sustain as an aging musician. But having said that, I don’t want to detract from how much power he still exudes, and also how much control when he just wants to make the instrument carry a lyrical melody.

Highlights of the evening included a tense, angular cover version of Fela Kuti's  “Lady” and a stirring epic rendition of Masekela’s own haunting classic, “Stimela (The Coal Train)” complete with spine-chilling vocalised train whistles and the subtlest of arrangements which put all the focus on the atmospheric spoken-word lyrics.

“You folks are on fire. Are you sure you’re not from Soweto?” Masekela asked during a call-and-response interlude in which the audience enthusiastically - and with surprising accuracy - mimicked increasingly complex vocal runs he fired at them. This was a side of the man I hadn’t anticipated; the amusing rapport he strikes up with an audience. For example, the Barbican crowd lapped it up when he teased them for their English reserve, in an absurd English accent. So by the time we were entering the final segment of the evening and Masekela shouted “Stand up!”, not a single person in the stalls remained seated. At last it was time to play a couple of tunes from Jabulani – fortunately the more up-tempo ones such as the gorgeous, uplifting “Mokoti”.

Finally a briefly mention of support act Zara McFarlane. This Dagenham girl with Jamaican roots apparently came late to jazz, her first love being reggae. So it was perhaps unsurprising when she introduced a cover version of “Police and Thieves” by Junior Murvin. However, what was surprising, and also quite thrilling, was that only the vocal melody bore any relation to the original. Yet despite her agreeable voice and an occasional touch of Jill Scott sass about her style, I was less absorbed by the more generic jazz numbers which dominated her set.

Listen to an excellent live recording of "Stimela (Coal Train)"


Perhaps a backing band of young musicians keeps Masekela literally on his toes, because he didn’t stop moving for two hours


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Your review is spot on. Hugh rocks!

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