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Existence and Purpose

by Ts’eliso Monaheng / Images by Rémy Ngamije / 29.03.2012

“No smoking allowed, all smokers please move to the perimeter,” intones a voice intent on dishing out instructions to the masses through the sound system. I  will not be dragged into all that nonsense, so I resort instead to studying the colossal clouds gathering in circular formations and disperse over the mountain. The words: ‘gardens’, ‘series’, ‘concert’, and ‘Kirstenbosch’ intermingle in my mind, before being chewed and spat out in a meaningless pile of nothingness. The ceaseless elation begins; I become alive.

Bra Hugh Masekela, guardian of the South African jazz shrine, supreme bandleader, and all-important figurehead of our musical landscape shall henceforth serve as both mediator and chief navigator in a one and a half hour musical escapade. One would be hard-pressed to find a man more knowledgeable about the different strands of South African music than him; about the Marabi sounds that became Mbaqanga, which then fed into the blues that morphed into big band compositions of a bygone era, before taking a trajectory and being re-born as Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes, and the Jazz Epistles.

Flanked by a collective of perfectly-capable musicians (all from Cape Town apart from Soweto-born Fana Zulu on bass), bra Hugh reaches into his musical catalogue to afford us all a rare glimpse into his altruistic gift of gab: an amalgam of original work, revisions of ‘township spirituals’, and even an homage to the spirit of Anikulapo Kuti.

Hugh - Bra Hugh

The first song, sung in Shangaan, is a warning to people from rural areas of the perils of Johannesburg. The beat loosely references the Malopo tradition of Bapedi, and tethers on the edge of what Dr. Sello Galane has termed Free Kiba music. It is a trance-inducing concoction that filters through the lush greenery of the Kirstenbosch surroundings before landing onto the audience and leading us all into free-fall. There is no turning back from here.

The journey is filled with mazes and treasure-troves. The guitarist touches base with the polyrhythmic music of the Congo before negotiating an entry-point into Ghana. Had the coup in Mali not happened, one gets the feeling that he would plummet into the heart of Bamako’s market place before jetting off to the West in order to frolic in musical unison with New Orleans’ finest bluesmen.

“If I had to live without you mama,” sings Bra Hugh in a tone that somehow laments the bygone era, a time when existence and purpose were interchangeable words. The beat ceases; enabling Randall Scheepers’ piano to wrestle one of many percussive instruments bra Hugh has in his arsenal. The groove is reminiscent of Joe Sample’s stylistic flare, and the interchange a marvel to behold.

“Hela ngoaneso heeee…,” sings bra Hugh while inviting the audience to join in. They are the dying moments of the Caiphus Semenya composition, “Ha le se le di kganna”, a song that evokes the misty Maloti mountains and the Zouk of Central Africa in equal parts. At this point it hits me: four songs into the set, this is the first time he has uttered anything directly to those gathered before him. “We are gonna hire three ships and take you there with us,” says Hugh. No one seems to mind; in fact, judging by the thunderous applause every utterance elicits, everyone obliges.

Hugh - The Man

Under the leadership of bra Hugh, the band has leeway to move however they wish. This is, after all, a man who has navigated the concrete terrain of New York, ran rampant with Sly Stone & Co. on the West Coast, then decided to pay Fela a visit at his shrine when inspiration was running low. And he still had time to hang with Liberian royalty and plan a military coup in Central Africa (which he pulled out of at the last minute).

Decades after die swaart gevaar, the modal styling of jazz still resembles a by-gone era; a romantic period when music and struggle were synonymous. What lies strapped and stranded in-between virtuosity and serendipity are the shambles of Sipho Gumede’s bass, Hotep Galeta’s piano, and Winston Mankunku and Zim Ngqawana’s saxophones. We are a nation in mourning – yet unknowingly so. In the same vein, we are a nation in transition, searching for the new ‘new’; the curveball; the glorious trajectory to propagate our creative conscience into the next ‘next’. And the band launches into ‘Stimela’.

Hugh - Mood Shifts

“There’s a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi/ there’s a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe/ from Angola and Mozambique/”. Then Bra Hugh’s thoughts drift momentarily before he returns with “this is not an immigration roll-call”. He dedicates it to people who have lost their lives to natural disasters, and urges those in attendance to respect Mother Nature “for she knows how to defend herself”. This is the song which rose from the depths of his depravity into a global swansong for ravens, caged birds and human beings. At the back of my mind I am thinking, fuck you gold mining for all those years our grandfathers spent toiling underground on your behalf, to the detriment of the black family unit!

The mood shifts, and suddenly we are transported to a playground: “Lik-a dis, lik-a dat/ fela nah guh die-o/.” These are the initial phrasings of a song dedicated to another heavyweight of African music, Fela Kuti. Bra Hugh floats above the music, varnishes the vacuous spaces in our minds with his music and polished showmanship.

The ‘township spirituals’ make their way into the set too: ‘Khauleza’, first made famous by Dorothy Masuka, has every person up on their feet, dancing to the groove. What started off as a call-to-arms for shebeen queens serving illegal liquor to patrons has successfully morphed into a celebratory jive that brings joy to audiences.

Bra Hugh’s music is living proof of the fluidity of sound; it shifts and glides in a time-capsule, never losing track of its purpose; informing, chastising, and turning celebratory as and when the situation demands. He provided a mere glimpse into his virtuosity at Kirstenbosch, and had the audience rejoicing at every turn.

Hugh - Living Proof

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