Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rediscovery: Africa '68

While South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela has recorded scores of great records since the mid 1960s, one of his very finest achievements is this little-known triumph called Africa '68 (UNI).

This mysterious album was recorded in late 1967 between the trumpeter's Hugh Masekela Is Alive and Well at the Whiskey (UNI, 1967) and the career hit of "Grazing In The Grass" from The Promise Of A Future (UNI, 1968).

The album bears no credit whatsoever except a promo sticker affixed to the front cover stating "Hugh Masekela Presents the Exciting Sounds of Africa And Its People" and descriptive liner notes from the trumpeter himself, who served as co-producer (with partner Stewart Levine) and - obviously, though not stated - musical director of this grand project of mbaqanga music.

It probably goes without saying that this album has never appeared on CD. Hardly anyone even knows about it. And, despite its American origins, it is truly one of the finest examples of South African township music from the 1960s you could ever hope to hear.

A lot of hugely talented young musicians had fled the tyranny of South African Apartheid in the early 1960s and a surprisingly cogent contingent ended up in Los Angeles around the mid-1960s (another contingent ended up in London, but that's another story). A sort of community developed, where these folks got record contracts and helped each other out on their respective recordings.

Hugh Masekela was undoubtedly the best known of all of them at the time. He had already been married (and now separated from) the great Miriam Makeba, "Mama Africa," who sort of nurtured all of these young South African musicians.

By this time, Masekela had relocated to California, where he formed great friendships with great West Coast musicians and some of Hollywood's elite. Also there was the great composer, singer and musician Caiphus Semenya (who'd written a number of incredible tunes for Masekela, most notably "Ha Lese Le Di Khanna"), and his wife (and one of the finest singers to ever enhance our planet) Letta Mbulu, and Jonas Gwangwa and his wife at the time, the strikingly lovely and provocative singer, Mamsie.

The beautiful and ethereal Mbulu, who was more or less "discovered" by Cannonball Adderley, and Gwangwa, whose catchy instrumentals assured him of some promise, had already secured recording deals in the US. In 1966, Masekela had partnered with friend and producer Stewart Levine to form Chisa, a production company allowing him to do whatever he wanted, as long as he delivered the "pop" records UNI wanted - which, of course, he did.

Africa '68 was one of the first and very few such productions - a true reflection on Masekela's South African musical ideals, and one of the most honest expressions of music he ever recorded (another one, recorded shortly after this in early 1968, is a studio concoction called the Johannesburg Street Band on its 1968 UNI record titled Dancin' Through The Streets, a good Township Jive venture, but nowhere near as noteworthy as Africa '68).

There are no musician credits on the record, but it's pretty obvious that Masekela - who probably served as musical director - is on trumpet, vocals, background vocals and probably many of the arrangements heard here too. Letta Mbulu obviously leads on many of the songs. And it's a safe bet that Jonas Gwangwa and Caiphus Semenya make significant contributions to the music too.

I stumbled across a copy of this album at my friend Jerry Horton's long-gone and lamented store, The Record Mart in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1990 for five dollars and 95 cents. It's safe to say that he had no idea how incredibly valuable this music is. I had no idea when I bought it either.

My favorite songs here are probably my favorite songs of all time: Caiphus Semenya's "Uyaz' Gabisa" and "Kedumetse;" Jonas Gwangwa and Caiphus Semenya's "Noyana;" and Philemon ("Grazing In The Grass") Hou's "Thokozile." For the record, here is the album's lineup:

Side One:
1. Uyaz' Gabisa (Caiphus Semenya) - 3:15
2. Noyana (Jonas Gwangwa/Caiphus Semenya) - 2:45
3. Pretoria (P. Hou) - 2:07
4. Joala (E. Mohlami/C. Semenya) - 2:00
5. Aredza (Caiphus Semenya) - 2:35

Side Two:
1. Kedumetse (Caiphus Semenya) - 2:53
2. Umoya (Miriam Makeba) - 2:08
3. Thokozile (P. Hou) - 2:52
4. Bopedi (Hugh Masekela/E. Mohlomi) - 6:15

The album's original issue number is UNI 73020.

On LP, "Uyaz' Gabisa," "Aredza," " Kedumetse" and "Umoya" were also said to be included on the South African only issue of Letta Mbulu's album I'll Never Be The Same. "Aredza" and " Kedumetse" were also issued on the European compilation titled Letta Mbulu - Gold.

If you want to hear any of this music on CD, "Joala," "Aredza," and "Za Labalaba," another title that's probably from this session but not included on this album can be heard - performed under the weird alias "The Zulus" - on the CD Hugh Masekela Presents The Chisa Years 1965-1975 (Rare And Unreleased).

Of course, Ms. Mbulu had also recorded "Aredza" around the same time for her 1967 Capitol album Letta Mbulu Sings, which can also be heard on the 2005 Stateside CD Letta Mbulu Sings/Free Soul and Ms. Makeba had recorded her own "Umoya" for the breathtaking Warner Bros. album Makeba!, featured on the 2002 Collectables CD Miriam Makeba In Concert/Pata Pata/Makeba!.

Truly bountiful, beautiful and beneficent, this music absolutely should be heard by anyone who likes or cares for the music of Hugh Masekela, Letta Mbulu, Caiphus Semenya or Jonas Gwangwa. It is among the best work any of these great artists have ever done.

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