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Music Review: Hugh Masekela Live At The Market Theatre

Everybody always talks about the connection between Jazz music and Africa. How if you listen to tribal music you can hear in the drums the roots of what we now call Jazz. In fact many modern Jazz artists have "gone back to Africa" so to speak, and begun to make use of tribal instruments as part of their percussion sections.

But the flow goes both ways and African musicians have heard the music that's undergone a renaissance and a metamorphous and have in turn incorporated it into the music they perform and come up with their own versions of Jazz (as well as blues and popular music). One of the first to rise to prominence was Hugh Masekela from South Africa.

As a young man he came under the tutelage of some of the greats of American Jazz and popular music. Louis Armstrong gave him a trumpet, Harry Belafonte arranged for him to come to New York City to study music, and Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis took him under their wings to teach him the intricacies of Jazz. Living the life of an exile from his homeland because of apartheid, Hugh had more opportunities than most of his contemporaries to be exposed to North American Jazz and other Western pop influences.

At the same time he was also providing inspiration to North American pop artists like Paul Simon. Graceland, which featured Hugh, was one of the first popular attempts at tracing the path that African music had blazed across the landscape of American pop music. It also served to bring the name Hugh Masekela further into the general public's awareness and added to his reputation as an ambassador for African culture and music.
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Seventeen years ago Masekela was able to return to his homeland and in that time has not only continued his musical career but has also set out to develop a pan African entertainment and recording network to replace the mostly foreign owned system that is currently in place. It was only fitting therefore that The Market Theatre in South Africa, where Hugh's musical Sarafina received it's first performance, and home to African culture even during the worst days of apartheid, had him close out their month long thirtieth anniversary celebrations with two evenings of concerts.

Hugh Masekela Live At The Market Theatre on Times Square Records is a two disc recording taken from those live concerts and is being released to coincide with Hugh's planned 2007, three month summer tour of the United States and Canada. For those of you, like me, who are more familiar with the name then the music, and not sure what to expect, these two discs are a revelation.

From song to song you don't know what to expect. It could be something similar to the jazz/funk fusion of Miles Davis, jazz melodies with reggae backbeats, the sounds of the South African townships mixed with Jazz, and what could only be described as Hugh's own unique blending of the different strains of African music as it has dispersed around the world.

Of course there are also the songs that are familiar but I didn't know that Hugh Masekela had written like the classic anthem calling for the release of Nelson Mandela "Mandela". Hearing this song sung live makes you also realize how much of an impact and connection Masekela has with the people of his homeland. The audience reaction to the music and the sound of them spontaneously breaking into song indicated how much the man and his music had come to symbolize freedom as much as Nelson Mandela himself.
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Song after song on this recording had the air of celebration to it, either celebrating their country or their culture. Unlike North American Jazz, which relies heavily on instrumental compositions, voice plays a large part in this music. Perhaps it's that element that gives the music it's celebratory air like the voices in Afro-American gospel music make that music a joyous occasion. Make A Joyful Sound may have been about gospel music but it could just as easily apply to Live At The Market Theatre.

Of course some of the songs are about the less pleasant things in life living in Africa. For instance "Stimela" is about workers who are paid next to nothing for backbreaking work, or "District Six" is about the neighbourhoods that were artificially created by the government during apartheid. But even these songs, that are about serious social issues, aren't depressing just because they are about serious social issues, they are strong, powerful, affirmations of the human spirit that call upon people to rise up out of oppression, instead of being piteous complaints.

The music of Hugh Masekela that is presented on Live At The Market Theatre is obviously representative of the type of work he has done for his whole career. Songs like "Grazing In The Grass", which was the first instrumental song to rise to the top of the Billboard charts, celebrates Africa and Her people, provided hope in times of trouble and inspiration for a better tomorrow.

If Nelson Mandela was the face of liberation for South Africa during the long years of apartheid, then Hugh Masekela was its sound. Listening to him singing and playing with his band in South Africa at the Market Theatre is an affirmation for all of us that the impossible can happen and dreams can be realized.

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