Hugh Masekela has earned his place in the musical history books as one of the foremost exponents of South African township jazz, as well as the possessor of a extraordinarily vibrant, joyous and glossy tone on both trumpet and flugelhorn (the instrument he favoured exclusively at the Barbican), and as a raucous, crowd-pleasing singer. What makes him truly special, however, is that he represents the cultural resistance to the apartheid that drove him from his homeland in 1960 and from which he remained in exile until 1991.
It is many years since that evil system began to crumble, but reminders of the struggle to oppose it were constant during the concert by Masekela and his septet. The South African high commissioner was present and was called to her feet; as was Sir John Dankworth, also called on to stand as Masekela reminded the audience that many decades ago it was he who, at the urging of Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, wrote to the Guildhall School of Music in London to urge that a place be offered to the young South African.
"Music doesn't have a drop of prejudice flowing through its veins," said Masekela, and its unifying power was demonstrated as he brought special guests from around the world on stage to join his band: from Israel, the pianist Yaron Herman; from Ghana, the keyboardist Kwame Yeboah; and from Birmingham, our own saxophonist, Soweto Kinch. (Masekela quipped: "He's been to South Africa so many times, they named a township after him.")
From the moment that Masekela appeared on stage, ululations from the audience signalled that party-time had arrived, particularly after the powerful Sufi-inspired singing of Dhafer Youssef in the first half. Masekela shuffle-grooved in front of the microphone and instantly set the atmosphere with "The Boy's Doin' It", a laid-back funk number whose shiny synth and slap bass might have sounded dated in brasher hands but which here swiftly warmed the crowd up. By the second number the audience was on its feet, singing call and response to Masekela's raspy vocals, and the hall was in thrall to the distinctive rhythm and tonic - sub-dominant/dominant - harmony of South African jazz.
At 66 Masekela still blows one of the happiest-sounding horns around. He keeps his solos fairly simple, utilising both repeated and long-held notes and letting the unadorned lusciousness of his flugel, especially in the upper registers, fill the listeners' ears.
His guests fully earned their place on stage, Herman coming across as a pianist who had not only carefully studied the Keith Jarrett style-book but inwardly digested it, too, and Kinch providing thick, churning solos on Masekela's 1968 hit, "Grazing in the Grass".
The highlight of the evening, however, was a number contrasting with the upbeat Afro-jazz mood. "Stimela" tells the story of the poor Africans for whom the bells and whistles of the coal-train warned of the terrible conditions awaiting those who went to work in the mines. Masekela spoke about their plight over a low accompaniment from his band, using a cowbell to imitate the train ringing through the night. When he suddenly shouted out a loud "whoo- whoo!" in a powerful falsetto, spines throughout the hall shivered. This is a song to be played to young schoolchildren who see Nelson Mandela only as a cuddly, grandfatherly figure, a number that can illuminate the crime of late-20th-century racial oppression more vividly than any history book.
This is what makes Masekela such an important man to so many. It is not just his great facility on the horn, nor his ability to rouse an audience; it is the dignity of a people who laboured under a barbarous yoke that he represents - a people who have, amazingly, managed to forgive. Yet, while they smile in a new spirit of concord, they do not forget. It is in this combination that Masekela echoes Mandela, and why he receives a reception of such warmth. The man and his music urge us to look for the best in ourselves.Reuse content