Masekela leads crowd on boisterous romp

02.25.12
Hugh Masekela
Worcester Telegram & Gazette

By Aaron Niccodemus

WORCESTER —  At one point during his performance at the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts Thursday night, jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela taught the crowd of Americans how to ululate.

It’s this high-pitched trill that old women sing at weddings and funerals in South Africa, a “u-lu-lu-lu-lu” sound, belted out at the highest pitch you can imagine.

“Oh that was beautiful. Beautiful!” Masekela said in his distinctive deep, raspy voice, following a particularly earnest attempt by the audience. “Are you sure you’re not from Soweto?”

“Hugh Masekela: Jabulani Tour 2012,” a six-man band led by Masekela, has crisscrossed the country, performing a boisterous, joyous combination of jazz, pop and African melodies in Los Angeles and Chicago and last night, Worcester.

“Jabulani,” his 28th studio album, celebrates the wedding traditions of his homeland, weaving in all of the melodies and story lines that accompany two people getting married.

Masekela explained that before a marriage, the bride and groom’s families enter into a long negotiation about the “lobola,” or bride price. The lobola is paid by the husband’s family to the family of his soon-to-be wife, usually negotiated by the aunts and uncles on either side.

“If she’s highly educated and very beautiful, you’re going to pay through the nose,” he told the audience. Once the price is agreed, there is an impromptu parade through the village, where unmarried men and women from both families sing songs of mockery about the groom.

“What are you doing with this funky guy? Have you smelled his armpits lately?” might go the words of one song. “What are you doing with this fool who can’t dance?” might go another.

At 72, Hugh Masekela still dances like a young man, still lets loose with notes low and high, still pumps out his trademark sound from his flugelhorn as if he’s still an up-and-coming jazz musician chased from his homeland by an unjust government and sent packing around the world, honing his craft in London, in America. In 1968, Masekela would strike gold with the best-selling instrumental song, “Grazin’ in the Grass,” win a Grammy and become world-famous. He and the band played a snippet of the familiar tune last night.

Masekela is a force of nature on stage. Even when one of his bandmates was playing a solo, Masekela had the audience’s attention, rapping feverishly on a cowbell, grimacing, swaying, losing himself in the music. And just when it seemed he had completely lost himself in his bandmate’s performance, he pulled himself out of it, stepped back to the microphone, and played the music that is distinctly his own.

He dedicated last night’s performance to the meek.

“Let’s remember the people who are caught in the crossfire, who are looking for a peaceful environment that they don’t know, running from the very guns of the people they elected to office,” he said. “To all these people, we send a cry of sympathy.”

“Hey Woosta!” Masekela said after playing a few songs. “It’s dark in here, so nobody can see you. There are people here tonight who have never screamed in their lives, not even in bed. Let it rip tonight. Let it rip!”

Masekela let it rip Thursday night. For two hours, the audience tried — and failed — to keep up with him.