Friday, March 28, 2008

Hugh Masekela

I have mentioned in other posts Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpeter/flugelhornist who was instrumental in developing world music and also a powerful witness for black South Africans during the Apartheid era. "Apartheid" means separateness in Afrikaans, the native South African language, and a policy of segregation between four races was enforced by an oppressive white colonial government. Imagine if the Jim Crow laws were official policy for all of America, from the 1940s and into the 1990s. (It has few if any defenders now, but many governments turned a blind eye due to lucrative products that came out of South Africa.) Many people read the lyrical, moving book "Cry the Beloved Country" in high school or early college. It's a great summer read, by Alan Paton.

Masekela, who went into exile in America in 1960, says in the liner notes to his 1963 album Grrr that in South Africa, jazz and joyful "freedom songs" were forbidden. Playing in clubs, he had to hide and evade authorities who enforced mandatory black curfews. Going out to secret clubs was exhilirating, and also meant alot. Nowadays when we go to the Mill or the Sanctuary (bars in Iowa City that offer live music), we give up TV watching or paper-writing or practice time. Imagine needing to let loose and sing and dance so badly that you would risk sure punishment. Masekela also says that it was such a dramatic experience to be in these clubs, pulsing with life (all of these people, even the musicians, had day jobs as servants) that they would play 8 hours straight with few breaks, until the chops almost fell apart (those are his words).

Hear Masekela talk about music under apartheid here. It's quite dramatic, and he fashioned himself as an eloquent, dignified social critic even through the 90s.

Grrr has the sound of hard-bop in it. Though there is a saxophone, there are seldom any sax solos. A trombone is typically the lead voice with Masekela filling in the harmonies beneath him, which makes for a thicker sound perhaps reminiscent of Art Blakey and gives a funky depth to the voicing. The rhythm resembles a straight-eighth boogaloo (early funk), but with accent patterns that aren't obtrusive but, when you pay attention to them, are very hard to figure out.
A tuba pops in when you least expect it, on a few tunes, casting the music in a New Orleans light. The music is very tertian but has lots of voicings in fourths (you have to hear it to see what I'm saying, and I'll play it for my classmates Wednesday), and the frequent trombone and trumpet solos are very powerful, muscular, and in the pocket. They leave it all out on the tracks. Unfortunately, records from the sessions were not saved so we don't know who the tubist or trombonist are.

Increasingly Masekela turned to funk and "world music" and away from the tight brass band sound. In 1968, he scored a number one mega-hit for his ultra-catchy (some may say annoying song) Grazin' in the Grass. I can't find an online listing of the original, but here's a bad recording of it from 2000. He can still play. The tune starts at about 1:15 in the track. There is a joyful if over-produced album with Herb Alpert and Hugh Masekela from the 1970s that sort of sums up where he went, trying to broaden his audience in order to gain a larger platform for his social critique (also, to make some $!).

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