It's odd to learn that, of all people, it was Kirk Douglas's film portrayal of the white and ultra-classical-sounding Bix Beidebecke that first inspired the South African trumpet star Hugh Masekela to pick up the instrument. Later, after music lessons from the ANC activist Trevor Huddlestone and the gift of a new trumpet from Louis Armstrong, Masekela watched America's postwar black jazz musicians on film and listened to them on record, aspiring to a perceived level of glamour and equality that was probably more fiction than fact. His own band, the Jazz Epistles, were the first all-black South African band to record an album, before a worsening political situation made it impossible for him to earn a living as a musician.
Now 61, back in South Africa for the past eight years, after 30 years in exile, everything he does still seems to comment on the South African political timeline: he's currently promoting a Greatest Hits record that features new versions of some of the classic African jazz hits he made while living in America, protest songs and laments recorded in South Africa for the first time.
The concert revealed a musician of phenomenal grace and power: intricate and fiery on flugelhorn and still blessed with a voice that can strip the leaves from the trees. He was in ebullient mood, sharing jokes with an audience boasting a sizeable African contingent. He arrived with a sextet and played a collection of old favourites - a loping "Grazing in the Grass", a punchy "Ha Le Se Le Li Khanna" and a long version of "Stimela", his classic lament to the conscripted African miners, packed with enough drama and anger to last the evening. His guitarist, John Selolwane, created more than his share of excitement. Loose and daring, and right on the edge where the best improvisation comes from, he was the perfect foil for Masekela's more rigid machine-gun flugelhorn.
The support was special, too. The consistently inspired British trombonist Annie Whitehead opened with a tribute to Masekela's late saxophone partner Dudu Pukwana, and her entire set was a joyous experience. She made an unwieldy instrument sound as light as paper.Reuse content