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Hugh Masekela: Dr. Funk-Einstein!

POSTED: By Bongani Madondo

Rock'n'roll wild man, jazz veteran, agent provocateur, the inde-funkable Hugh Masekela digs back to his funk journey with his record, 'Playing @ Work'. Bongani Madondo, who had given up on hearing any surprises in Hughie's work, is forced to eat his notebooks and bow before the Master at Work

     
Hugh Masekela
Hugh Masekela
Brett Rubin

With over six decades at the Coalface of his calling – for this is not a "career" ... something sinisterly persuasive, something that doesn't ask your permission before swallowing your life and the lives of your beloveds – there just aren't any creative spaces Hugh Masekela has not explored.

His latest album, Playing @ Work, is a primer of an artist in full control of the fact that he cannot really be fully in control of where his creative demons take him – that's if being fully in control means sticking to the tried-and-tested, same ol' style his die-hard fans love to pigeonhole him in. But, like his fellow late-night crawlers and debauched pals, Miles "Dewey III" Davis and Jimi Hendrix, Masekela is notorious for bucking the trend, altering your listening sensibilities, kicking a buck' of cold water on your face, flooring you with his horn, and waking the goddamned out of you.

In other words, Hughie just doesn't give a funk if you rock or roll with him – so long as you listen, he'll surely rearrange everything else you were certain you knew about him. There's not much he has not done, recorded, played live, imagined, discarded, embraced or dreamt of in this biz: from street performance, recorded albums, musicals, film scores, and so on. With a his-"story" of playing with everyone – Herb Alpert, Miriam Makeba, Fela, Hedzoleh Soundz – to stage invitations to rock, with outfits such as U2, The Rolling Stones, up to latter-day township prog-punks Blk Jks and experimental collaborations with dance stalwarts such as Thandiswa Mazwai and Black Coffee, Masekela's space, time and influence defies even his much-celebrated versatility. Masekela is timeless. Generations that, seemingly, have no direct links with each other have watched, dealt with, enjoyed – as well as engaged with – the artist remaking not only himself, but his art, while remaining true to his roots: a dynamic African musician for all seasons.

That's Hughie for you.

From stylistic demands of several genres such as mbaqanga to funk, jazz, soul, house and back, Hugh Masekela traverses all with acute understanding, open ear and respect, and is not only dynamic and creatively receptive, but rare within a modern sphere of artistic creation.

Masekela is not a versatile artist. He is versatility itself. He is in fact Music, itself: as in, the sound and creative turmoil responsible for that which he is known for – Music. All transformative music, by its nature, and all alchemists practising the gift of "ngoma" (that is the art of making a "song", thus making all songs creators as "aba"-Ngoma, the Healers), can go any which way at any time.

In his life, art, speech, mannerisms, gait and, if you know him, laughter and style, Hughie is all music. He is not about, or for, music. He is Music! Because of that, because we relate to him as we would relate to that which he creates, we react to him the way we re- act to music – an omnipresent force or act of nature in our lives.

We react to him in the way we would react to the air we breathe: that is, we don't react as much as breathe it. We take for granted that it's there and that without it there's no life. We react to him in the ways we would react to the food we ingest into our bodies to sustain us. We hold him as the soul-force and the trip through which we strive for re- newal. We appreciate and have rendered him part of who we are as a people in the way we do with personal and collective prayers, and meditative trips we take. We feel him with the same knowledge that we cannot avoid the daily grind of problems, sorrows and sadness – the Blues, to wit. But we also hear him to be the sound of triumphs and glories we are transformed by.

It becomes easy then, to get used to Hughie, in the same manner that folks get used to life while, of course, never ever getting used to death. In that sense, the person Ramapolo "Hugh" Masekela (child and grandchild of amaNdebele) and the music of the celebrated "Bra" Hughie – the international musical polyglot, composer, musical director, trumpeter, band leader and writer – has become part of who we are.

All well and good, but we should also refuse to get used to him as an artist, for artists, especially boundary-pushing, innovative, restless spirits such as Masekela, are never the same as they were yesterday, and you just don't know what tomorrow might do with them, or what they will do tomor- row. Take his latest offering, Playing @ Work. Prior to listening to it, one might get apprehensive simply because you just have no idea what this Done-It-All has to say anymore – if he has anything more to say. And then it just hits you in all the right places ... and then some!

Hugh Masekela's latest record is a double disc of innovative, classical, reworked and freshly- composed music that largely sets, implores and beckons you onto the dance floor, while, in typical Masekela manner, slaps you bang across the heart with his incendiary and unifying, socially- conscious message.

The first disc packs strong-and-warm, but alert-and-alive music. Masekela is just incapable of creating music that just leaves you in peace. No, he is not a "peaceful" artist, if by peace you expect art for art's sake. Not that he eschews creating music for the sheer pleasure of it; he does, although even when he does that. somehow the music is incapable of just leaving you alone.

On Disc 1, the song "Africa Hold Hands" serves as an establishing shot. And what a visual shot it proposes! The message – more a pan-African call for unification than just a simple reactionary "anti-xenophobic" reaction – is wrapped in a work of persuasive musicality and execution. For a few minutes, the song opens with playful piano chops, so clean, so taut, so direct that for a minute you think it's a piece entirely redolent with strings in that Rex-Rabanye-township-string tradition, for the piano lingers a little longer with the clever precision, or editing, that introduces the song's entire instrumental blast. Led by a cheeky and groove-riding bass, this is funk – Afro-funk if you will – for who do you know that's phonkier than Hughie, albeit a different performance of funk altogether. It is mbaqanga funk quite distinct to South Africa. Synchronised and cooked together, the music is catchy, warm ... hip-swivellingly touchy as well. The energy is reminiscent of Masekela's longest and highest international charting song of all time – "Grazing In The Grass" – or at least a sample of it as used in the Hollywood Black Power biopic of Pete Green, Talk To Me. With this song, you are sucked into an imaginary climate ... conjuring images of summer with communities playing communal drumming at dusk and children playing khati, and so on.

Well, it don't stop – Hughie won't stop there.

Building on the intensity of the opening track, he risks everything and throws caution to the wind with Track 2: a remake of Bob Dy- lan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue". The original piece by the "Village Poet" Dylan was included in his 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home, the title itself an allusion to a blues and gospel idiom, as well as emotional quest, which, sung by Dylan, immediately assumed a staggering social import.

In this latest interpretation, Masekela renders Dylan probably at his funkiest ever since his own "Changing of the Guards" (1978) from the album Street Legal and "Blind Willie McTell" from Bootleg Series, Vol 3. In English: Bob Dylan has never sounded so urgent, so tomorrow, so funky, so down 'n greasy, and yet so hopeful. The song is fuller, rounder, edgier, and the musicality (its balladry); the quality of the recording itself is more filling, and gives off more pronounced textures and colours. While the music is more up-beat, the chorus, delivered by choir-like back-up singers, gifts the song with renewed shape altogether – what Americans refer to as "audacity", sometimes. So much so that the song you heard has almost no resemblance to Dylan's song.

This is a Hugh Masekela song and its aural density and African spirit will remind of exactly that; that is, were we to have visitations of doubt. In Masekela's hands it also morphs into a dance piece, without losing its poignancy. How Hughie, the musical director in his own right, does this, beats me. Must be the years running around with those West Africans! (This is said in the jesting tradi- tion and, as backhanded compliment to Ghanaian and Nigerian music's intra-wired funk and dance roots, and never pejorative.)

As though the introductory bleeds too much groove, he segues into "Soul Rebel", a paean to his onetime pal, the Jamaican-born international Africa social soul brother No. 1 – Robert Nesta Marley: His Royal Bobness!

Other compositions such as "Makotopong", the name of Masekela's current recording home outside of Pretoria, and "Perlemoen" round up a very satisfying Side A of this double-whammy.

Side B (or Disc 2) is no walkover, though.

Although, musically, it continues both the mbaqanga-jazz-dance fusion (for both traditionalists and cyber-age hipsters) it also, and subtly, continues with Masekela's celebration of his peers and seers who held the game long before we were born; the songs here give it an identity all its own. So it is as much a stand-alone as it is a continuation of the journey from Disc 1.

Although the entirety of this Side B is framed in tight and economic delivery, the overwhelm- ing feel here is of assured jazzier pathways: you can say, if you dare, that Hughie is going back to what made him such a force to be reckoned with in the first place: African roots synthesised with jazz. Hughie steals the whole thing from Theory and puts flesh to it so that, in his music, you get to ap- preciate in real time what is meant by jazz as an African art-form. The tempo here is slightly and deceptively slower, the instrumentation and singing cleaner and nuanced. This time around, funk gives way to a jazz with a gospel or soul twist.

Although the most emotionally poignant centrepiece of the entire disc is the melancholic groove and bass beauty found in "Where He Leads Me", the song that might just turn out to be the most associated with this two-disc smacker is Masekela's 1970s composition, which he never performed though it was made popular by the late Miriam Makeba: "Soweto Blues".

Now I believe Masekela might yet prove to be the master remix visionary of our time, and by "remix" we do not imply the house music DJ tag of an artist who resamples and remixes several classics with contemporary computer-digitised beats. His ingenuity, almost sharing the same ethos as the young house DJs, lies in his ability to fuse new energy into a classic or older piece of work: updating it, rebuilding it, recoating it, while carrying something about it that made it a clas- sic in the first place. And that's what he does here with "Soweto Blues".

The song showcases the spirited – defiant, even – voice of Phuthuma, as well as small choral back- up that recalls both Makeba and Sarafina! the musical's unmitigated defiance. Here, we listen in awe and nod our heads as the young woman rises up to dispense lessons – again on unity. She scorns ethnicity, brings our attention to the ills of soci- ety across ethnicities. She sings with the breathing technique of a time-keeping drummer, so that when she's comfortable knowing she's got our at- tention, immediately and without changing, playing to the gallery or her studio producer's approval, she draws us into a stirring gospel rendition of a classic African song.

Phuthuma's coaxing, defiance and pride are, in the way Masekela easy-does it, accentuated by great accompaniment, experience, love and just the ol' playful declaration of love for the muse. This time around, the art of music creating itself, more than any other subject matter, serves as Hugh's most reliable muse and trustworthy guide. The same spirit washes over the double album.

With this offering (and, hey, who knows?) possibly inspired by renewed vigour, Masekela creamed off his award-winning and internationally-touring Songs of Migration musical, reminding us why we imagined and wished to own him, breathe him; how we have internalised him, sung him and sung with him in the first place.

With this album, he gives us that which has been lost or died within us: hope, vitality, defiance, beauty and currency. What else could you ask from any artist?

This is an article from the April 2013 issue of Rolling Stone South Africa. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

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