Masekela and Mahlasela: Joy in the music of history

Hugh Masekela
Philadelphia Inquirer

By Shaun Brady

The songs that flügelhornist Hugh Masekela and singer-guitarist Vusi Mahlasela performed at the Annenberg Center on Saturday night were the sound track to the apartheid era, and thus dealt with grim themes: racial segregation, violence, imprisonment, and struggle.

But the mood these two South African icons conjured was buoyant and celebratory, a vivid illustration of the role music played in lifting the spirits of South Africans during decades of oppression.

The lighthearted mood could be summed up in Mahlasela's gallows humor, as he introduced a "very short song" called "Jailbreak," written by a friend during his prison term - then proceeded to scrape the strings of his guitar to simulate a sawing sound. Or in Masekela's prologue to his 1987 hit "Bring Him Back Home," when he noted that Nelson Mandela and his compatriots ended their decades-long jail terms as old men, then asked the audience to stand and "shake a little booty for those old wonderful geezers."

Dancing and playing a variety of hand percussion when not playing his flügelhorn or singing, Masekela showed no signs of his age, even during a fiery reading of his signature hit, "Grazing in the Grass," a mainstay of his sets since its 1968 release.

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