Hugh Masekela sang his heart out in front of a moved and delighted audience on April 6 at the Victoria Theatre of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. The South African singer and political activist was ending a North American tour started on March 22 in honor of his 75th birthday, which he also celebrated at the Lincoln Center on April 4 and 5.
Hearing Masekela is like traveling all the way to South Africa, and to the roots of African music. Masekela does not tire of singing hits like the sad protest song “Stimela” (“Coal Train” in English), for which he literally screamed, on April 6, to imitate the whistle of the train. That train in the song takes African men to the mines of Johannesburg, where they are going to be exploited.
Masekela lived in exile from the early 1960s through the early ’90s, but “his music talked to the will of South Africa’s struggle for independence,” D.C. based jazz writer Giovanni Russonello explained. “Even in what often passed for blithe funk-jazz (“Grazing in the Grass” is the obvious example), there is a bite and an alert, declarative sensibility.”
South African bass player Bakithi Kumalo, who has performed with the singer several times, recognized Masekela’s influence. “He was almost like Nelson Mandela, but for our music,” Kumalo said.
Hugh Masekela began his career as a teenager in the 1950s, “idolizing American jazz musicians at a time when South Africa’s native majority hungered for what they represented: their convictions, their hoodwinking, truth-to-power intellectualism, their dapper self-regard,” Russonello said. “Along with fellow future-immortals Dollar Brand and Kippie Moeketsi, in 1959 he formed South Africa’s first widely recognized jazz band, the Jazz Epistles.”
Kumalo said that Masekela was a friend of the famous jazz trumpeters Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong. “And they loved him because he was bringing South African music to American music,” he said.