Friday, May 12, 2006

Hugh Masekela

Opening night, May 11, at Yoshi's for Hugh Masekela was packed. I arrived early for a change and got a great spot. Cabaret seating hadn't been this tight in a while; just the evening before at the Carmen Lundy gig, I had plenty of leg space, but cramped or otherwise, Baba Hugh was worth it.

The band opened the set with a cool number, Ibala Lam, a song of racial pride: "This brown color is a winner, its my shining armor."

Afterwards the ensemble launched into After Tears, Masekela's shirt the color of sunny skies at dusk, blues streaked with reddish brown, silver flugel horn at his lips, as congero Francis Fuster, played timbales, with stronger accents by drummer Sello Montwedi.

With groove set on continuous play-- the evening moved from fantastic into phenomenal!

Other songs performed were: Woman of the Sun, introduced with a little Fela Anikulapo Kuti -- "She no say...." The original AfroBeat musician, Masekela's show was as much a history lesson as it was a "booty shaking" tour of African musical traditions with talking drum, talking saxophones... Brother Hugh dancing, soloing ...talking much smack 'cause he could, 'cause it was expected.

"We haven't greeted you yet. How you doin' Oakland?" He paused between songs to ask, then commented on how quiet we were... rolled the moment back and asked the question again.

"How are you Oakland?" The roar lifted the already levitating roof.

Completing the ensemble were two men on keyboards positioned on opposite sides of the stage -- one, Arthur Tshabalala, had so much equipment you could barely see him, the other Ezbie Moilwa, standing; also saxophonist/flutist, Khaya Mahlangu, bassist Fana Zulu, and guitarist John B. Selolwane (Jazz Epistles).

The band was tight, musicians all from South Africa, except guitarist Selolwane from Botswana.
Since Masekela didn't introduce any of the numbers...many from the Revival CD, I discovered later when I got home (Chisa Records 2005), all I could do was give myself up to the rhythms of Africa as Brother Hugh took us on a train ride to the mines where men worked and often died -- the classic Stimela opened with the clanking of the cowbell...the sound of train wheels turning, levers pumping steam, whistle blowing...the musician's imitation of the slow acceleration flawless as his hand pulled on the imaginary lever announcing the train's passage through the hinterlands into Johannesburg so far away from miners' homes -- Whoo Whoo!

I was seated with Avotcja, her friend, and Karen Henderson, who has a lovely sculpture in the "Black Artists' Expressions of Father" exhibition at the San Francisco Main Library in San Francisco, 100 Larkin Street, and the Richmond Main Street Initiative 1101 MacDonald Avenue, Richmond, CA, through June 29.

Avotcja, poet, multipercussionist, with Francis Wong, tenor sax, Jon Jang, piano, and Eugene Warren on bass, has a a gig at Bistro Yoffi, 2231 Chestnut Street, at Fillmore, San Francisco the fourth Tuesday of each month, this month May 23, 7 p.m., no cover. Visit

Whether it is 1969 or 2006, when Baba Hugh performs a song, reenacts the drama of its inception, it is as if he just wrote the song yesterday and its performance the first. For this reason, as audience favorites were played, people couldn't remain in their seats, scattered shouts of "We love you Hugh!" filling the space between breaths as Hugh joked with the Oakland audience, thanking the Bay Area for staging boycotts against the former Apartheid regime, April 27 the 13th Anniversary of his country's first free independent elections for all, where Nelson Mandela became the country's first Black president.

My favorite song, Marketplace (maybe?) was a flirtatious tale of a man who meets his amour, an attractive Congolese vegetable vendor one afternoon. Before picking up his horn, Baba Hugh dramatized the tale, taking both parts...his voice an octave or two higher for the woman. His pantomime complete with choreography... six of the band members dancing in a line....

The Boyz Were doin' it in Oakland Thursday night. These same folk doin' it in Lusaka, Nairobi, San Francisco, polyrhythms, lyrics caught midair by the saxophonist as Masekela shifted from flugelhorn to tambourine, the crescent shaped instrument white against the blue sky of his chest, silver horn rejoining the constellation as the saxophonist solo ended.

...They were doin' it in Cairo, Juba, Sowethu, New York, Philadelphia.

Then on a song I called Daddy's song, because I didn't know its title, Masekela (b. April 1939) sang a combination of rhythms then the guitarist responded in kind. It was awesome! You really had to have been there, especially when Masekela did this again -- horn turned sideways, singing flute riffs, which the flutist, Mahlangu, matched flawlessly, as did Selolwane once again!

We were invited to stand, those who were able, to honor the "old gizzards," who went into prison for principles they were willing to die for and exited, 27 years later like Mandela, other dying in the harsh conditions at Robben Island.

Masekela's autobiography released a couple of years ago, Still Grazing, with a companion musical retrospective by the same title, is one my all time favorite stories, because like other great stories of a life in process, like Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggle of Kwame Ture, both reflect a time in African Diaspora history when so much was happening. It takes a life lived often extreme ends of the human spectrum, to give those who were there food for contemplation, and for those who weren't there -- such books are an opportunity to glean a perspective often lost in the retelling when biographers lose sight of what is important: the personal is always political -- Masekela's life is an example of the indivisible nature of the two. History's relevant lies in its connection to the lives of those who lived it and are still around to tell the story in their own voices.

Art is a mighty tool.

Bring Back Nelson Mandela is a song many in the audience knew, the additional voices filling the air with sweet melodies. Though disappointed Masekela didn't play Grazin' In the Grass, there really was no cause for complain, his show more than any could have asked for, then afterwards he came out and signed autographs, took pictures, before the lights went out on us and everyone had to go.

Listen to an interview


Photo: James Rich, Wanda Sabir, John B. Selolwane, Hugh Masekela. Photo credit: Wanda Sabir.



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