One more time, Hugh Masekela sang his heart out in front of a moved and delighted audience on April 6 at the Victoria Theatre of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. Full of energy, the trumpeter, singer and political activist did not miss a single opportunity to make jokes.
“He was amazing: he is a musician, a philosopher,” one of the audience members said after the concert. Hearing Masekela is like traveling all the way to South Africa, and to the roots of African music. At NJPAC he performed with his quintet , composed of young musicians, two nights after he had just celebrated celebrated his 75th birthday at the Lincoln Center with singer Paul Simon. The concert included Masekela hits like the sad protest song “Stimela” (“Coal Train” in English), for which he literally screamed to imitate the whistle of the train. That train in the song takes African men to the mines of Johannesburg, where they are going to be exploited.
Masekela also performed “Grazing in the Grass,” another of his hits. He played various percussion instruments and performed a sophisticated dance move in which he bent his knees close to the floor, then rose again.
Masekela’s music does not age, said the South African bass player Bakithi Kumalo, who has performed with him several times. “When he is on stage, people pay attention,” Kumalo said. And Kumalo recognized Masekela’s influence. “He was almost like Nelson Mandela, but for our music,” he said.
Kumalo added that Masekela was a friend of the famous jazz trumpeters Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong. “And they loved him because he was bringing South African music to American music,” he said.
He added that Masekela’s music is a mix between South African music and jazz. “Because he’s spent a lot of time in America,” Kumalo said.
Going to a Masekela performance is setting oneself up for fun, excitement and surprise.