SOUTH AFRICA: Home Is Where The Music Is - Hugh Masekela
Updated: Nov 1, 2021
A remarkable talent whose music can be enjoyed passively and reveal itself actively as the master trumpeter takes you on a emotional journey, whilst honouring his South African roots
The father of South African jazz is seen as an intensely political figure due to his anti-apartheid songs, perhaps most famously Bring Him Back Home. Whilst music might often seem to be an escape from politics, music so often is inherently political and though his 1972 album might not appear to be attempting to make a big political statement it cannot escape the very fact that it massively does. The album is an homage to the endless possibilities that exist within the genre that he loves, as well as an opportunity to bridge the work of bebop pioneers like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with traditional South African folk rhythms, as he proudly showcases the sounds and music of his Africa. This is not just a jazz album as it has echoes of an afrobeat album, and to create something that will inevitably appeal to an international audience that celebrates black African culture and talent amidst the backdrop of apartheid is, perhaps inadvertently, an intensely political act.
“His staccato trumpeting is truly mind-blowing and releases an immediately uplifting energy which comes and goes throughout the album.”
The fact that there is a powerful political message that lies within the very existence of the album might imply that this might be a heavy listen. This is far from the case. If one wishes to stick this record on in the background it does not demand immediate attention for you, nor is it filled with pretentious flourishes that some jazz music can contain in an attempt to make a statement. This is simply good music that for the most part is very easy to listen to. Yet, if you chose to actively engage with the album, then Masekela has got you covered, as he can take you on a journey and once you are in you are bound to be hooked. Masekela bridges the gap between showmanship and soul. He has ample ability to flaunt his skill, both as a composer but also as a trumpeter, but when he does, he doesn’t do so merely in an exercise to draw attention to his hard work and natural talent that have got him to this stage, but rather he does so from a seemingly far deeper emotional place. The range of rhythms and styles are not simply a round-the-house tour showcasing his inventiveness but rather a gentle rollercoaster he wishes to take his audience on so that they can mirror his emotions he felt when recording each note he plays.
The opener Part Of A Whole is a phenomenal introduction to the album and lets the listener know what a unique talent he is on the horns. His staccato trumpeting is truly mind-blowing and releases an immediately uplifting energy which comes and goes throughout the album. Minawa on the flip side has such a soft start with the most gorgeous keys on the intro, before the aptly named The Big Apple is played perfectly, balancing the frantic yet overtly trendy and grand energy New York City is famous for; at this point one might be well within their rights to wonder when and where these supposedly African rhythms would come to the fore. However, it is on the next track where the true fusion music begins. The beautifully soft Unhomé written by his ex-wife Miriam Makeba is starkly different to the overtly ‘American’ jazz that had been played up until that point on the album. The irony of the rather Western sounding music on the album up until that point is that the aforementioned Minawa is believed to have been written by the music obsessive President and eventual dictator of Guinea, Sekou Touré. One can read more about Touré’s belief in the importance of musical traditionalism and celebrating one’s African roots through music in our review of state-sponsored maestros Balla Et Ses Balladins' Objectif Perfection and thus feel somewhat surprised that Minawa is one of the least ‘African sounding’ tracks on the whole album.
Anyway, as Unhomé enabled a move away to more experimental pastures on the album, songs like Maseru really shine with its overtly Afro-Cuban influence. One can picture bustling city nightlife that sounds quite different to a Scorsese-esque vision of New York in The Big Apple. The final track on the album is so overtly afrobeat that if someone told me it was written by Fela Kuti I would not be surprised. Ingoo pow-pow begins with gloriously passionate chanting at the start of the song that sets the tone for the rest of the track. However, for me the most interesting section of the album spans across four tracks from Inner Crisis to Maesha. The first of the bunch blends together a funky beat with mbaqanga music that once upon a time was the soundtrack to township life. The song-titling on the album is remarkably astute as it evokes a seemingly incongruent combination of emotions. However, Blues For Huey, certainly the most jarring and uncomfortable track on the album, is full of pure rage with its rather intense percussive intro that doesn’t lay off until the end. My favourite song on the album is of course Nomali, arguably one of the greatest jazz ballads of all time, it is utterly beautiful and serves as incredible relief after Blues For Huey. Masekela, caps off the set nicely with another gorgeous track. Maesha’s uniquely soul rhythm is simply lacking some vocals overlaid on top of it to make it a Motown hit. Unlike so many jazz artists at the time who were jazzifying popular songs of the day, Masekela was instead giving endless inspiration to the next generation of pop stars gifting them melodies and ideas that could easily be sampled into a musical goldmine.