Masekela a musical force

06.29.11
Hugh Masekela
Ottawa Citizen

By Chris Cobb

Brave crowd enjoys what was arguably best show of the festival

Once Hugh Masekela and his ensemble are in the groove, it's a musical ride like no other.

Too bad the brief electrical storm scared so many people away from the Ottawa Jazzfest Tuesday evening.

When all is said and done, it will doubtless make the list as one of the best concerts of the rain-sodden festival.

While the crowd thickened as the concert progressed, at 1,500 it was tiny compared to the big three shows that went before - Robert Plant, k.d. lang and Elvis Costello. (Lang clocked more than 11,000.)

Masekela's unique blend of traditional African rhythms and sub-Saharan jazz - delivered with lyrics that dig deep down to his African roots - is as multi-dimensional as he is multicultural.

Now 72, the South African-born horn player (and passionate vocalist) is at a stage in his distinguished career where the lifetime mélange of African, British and U.S. musical educations and influences is refined to a point where it might well be called Masekela, like reggae is reggae, jazz is jazz and pop is pop.

Indeed, Masekela music contains bits of each of those comparisons and more.

He played with Bob Marley in the formative years, listened and absorbed much from the U.S. jazz greats and travelled with Paul Simon on the Graceland tour bus.

He is notably more self-effacing.

"I am not the kind of musician you hear saying my music," he told one U.S. newspaper. "I don't think I have music. I think everybody gets music from the community they come from. Every note I play, every song that I've ever worked on is really from the people."

Onstage, Masekela is equally at home among his fun-loving, energetic African audiences as he is playing to the more reverential jazz crowd in North America.

His music makes you move, from whichever direction you approach it.

The one benefit of a smaller crowd was that those preferring to stand and dance a little didn't have to stand in the distance behind the mass of lawn chairs to do it. Those who chose to remain sitting were dancing on the inside.

Masekela has performed with all imaginable combinations of dancers, choirs and big bands, but his current touring ensemble is half a dozen, including himself at keyboards, bass, percussion, drums and guitars.

A tight, skilled bunch for sure, but most important, they were clearly having a good time.

It was infectious and a fitting reward for those who braved the elements.