Words by Kayceman
Hugh Masekela :: 05.12.06 :: Yoshi's :: Oakland, CA
You know when you are in the presence of a legend. When someone like Neil Young, Bob
Dylan, Femi Kuti, Ornette Coleman, or Bruce Springsteen walks into a room, there is an unmistakable
energy in the air. Genuine, historical greatness of this magnitude is impossible to deny. It's hard to say exactly
what you feel when you stand near it, but you know it when you feel it.
When Hugh Masekela took the stage
at the tiny, intimate, famous Yoshi's Jazz Club
in Oakland, CA, the capacity-plus crowd was aglow with the knowledge that they were in the presence of an absolute
legend. In fact, in all my years of attending shows at Yoshi's, I have never felt so much anticipation brewing in the
air. Beyond his Afro-jazz mastery of the flugelhorn and trumpet and in addition to his vocal prowess, Hugh
Masekela is and always has been a freedom fighter. His music has become part of the soundtrack of South Africa's
fight against Apartheid. After being sent into exile in 1961, Masekela rose to stardom across the globe, performing
with the likes of Fela Kuti, Abdullah Ibrahim, Harry Belafonte, Paul Simon, Herb Alpert, and Dizzy Gillespie, to name a
few. As the crowd sat enraptured by Masekela, one could sense his experience of forty years as one of the world's
greatest performers. Immediately one is captivated by his easy stage presence. Strolling out from behind the stage
as the music of his amazing band was already underway, it was impossible not to smile as Masekela stepped front
and center to complete a soaring three-part vocal harmony.
After warming up the room with a creamy, rich vocal display, Masekela's eight-piece band (Hugh on trumpet/
flugelhorn/vocals, guitar, bass, drums, two percussionists, two keyboards) dove into a deep, Herbie Hancock-style
groove that had folks up front wiggling in their seats and shouting approval. Somewhere in this pulsating funk
number, the shirtless percussionist took an impressive lead, playing off the bass and working around the drums. It's
always a joy to see a musician in Yoshi's (a very upper-crust, high-society club) with no shirt or no shoes. It's sort of
like when I used to go see Lee "Scratch" Perry and he'd be smoking huge joints the whole time. It reminds us that no
matter what might be considered "appropriate" or even "legal" for us regular folk, the same rules do not apply for the
stars who supply the music of our lives. And consequently, it only makes you admire the musician more when he
can behave in the precise manner he desires (in this case wearing no shirt) and yet not come off as pretentious or
arrogant. He is simply releasing himself of the silly rules society has created. It's a subtle, silent statement that
says, "I don't care what you say or think. This is who I am, and this is how I dress." In a way, this slight act
of defiance is a microcosm of what Hugh Masekela has always done, taking a stand and fighting for equal rights.
As Masekela led his band into a call-and-response selection between the band and the audience including the
words: Africa Unite, we were again reminded of one of society's most disgusting displays in all of recorded
history: Apartheid. At this point, the predominantly black crowd was standing, chanting, singing, stomping, and
dancing. Yoshi's is a sit-down jazz club, yet Masekela had them room moving like a late-50s juke joint. It was
celebratory, but not without a purpose. As Masekela spoke in his beautiful, soothing accent about Africa's need to
unite, workers dying in diamond mines, the struggle for freedom, and the work still needing to be done, it was
apparent that we weren't just witnessing a great jazz performance; we were watching a revolutionary in action. We
were in the presence of a legend.
Yet what truly sets Masekela apart from the plethora of other remarkable performers with a social agenda is his
impeccable musical ability. His work as a band leader and vocalist is only matched by his skill on the horn. As a
pioneer in African jazz, he incorporates the dynamic scope of pre-electric Miles Davis, the soul of John Coltrane, and
the constant undercurrent of Fela Kuti's Afrobeat. The first time I saw Hugh Masekela, I stood motionless for almost
the entire evening and I was eventually moved to tears. On this night I found myself rejoicing, singing, and
laughing. There are few performers alive who are as impressive as Masekela.
Hugh Masekela By Paul Natkin
Hugh Masekela has done more than just make amazing music; he has altered history and affected humanity. It's
Masekela's virtuosic talent and the manner in which he has chosen to use it that make him one of the most
important musicians of the past fifty years and an absolute living legend.
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