Late last year, I proposed a compilation of Hugh Masekela’s African-oriented recordings to Universal Music, which owned almost all of the recordings the South African trumpeter waxed between 1963 and 1978. To my great surprise, the company gave me the OK, even allowing me to avoid the obvious best sellers (“Grazing in the Grass,” etc.) that had been captured on so many previous - and to my mind, pointless – Masekela compilations.
Earnestly, I went about crafting what I considered a truly fine set that honored the great legacy of world music that trumpeter, vocalist, songwriter, arranger and producer Hugh Masekela has contributed to the modern music lexicon. My set, tentatively titled African Groove, was a powerful introduction to a signature music style that was not quite jazz, not quite pop, not quite African but quite definitely intoxicating and wonderful and like no one else in the world except Hugh Masekela himself.
”Win the World” video by Till Brönner & Hugh Masekela featuring Livingston.
Then, German trumpeter/vocalist and Universal Music recording star Till Brönner partnered with the legendary South African trumpeter and vocalist to record “Win the World,” a “We Are the World” styled-anthem tied to the 2010 FIFA World Cup competition held in South Africa. The higher-ups at Universal Music decided they needed a Masekela compilation to help promote the song.
Not quite satisfied with my seemingly unmarketable project, the head honchos OK’ed a budget increase, commissioned an original design, new liner notes, another compiler to be brought aboard and several remixes that were created especially for this suddenly very special project.
Hugh! The Best of Hugh Masekela: Presented by Till Brönner is the result and, all in all, it is a glorious presentation; certainly the best and most comprehensive compilation of Hugh Masekela’s music – and influence – ever put together and one that in some small way I am proud to have been a part of.
The June 10, 2010, World Cup opening concert featuring Hugh Masekela performing “Grazing in the Grass” and Lira adding a tremendous vocal to “Pata Pata.”
The producers left in some of my choices – “U, Dwi,” “Umaningi Bona,” and “Phatsha-Phatsha" from the 1965 album Grrr, “Unhanhia” from 1968’s The Lasting Impression of Hugh Masekela, “Johannesburg Hi-Lite Jive” and “Dyambo” from 1971’s Hugh Masekela and the Union of South Africa, “Languta” from 1973’s Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz, “Excuse Me Please” from 1975’s The Boy’s Doin’ It, and, most significantly of all, the extraordinarily lovely and otherwise unavailable “In the Market Place” from 1974’s I Am Not Afraid - and added some excellent choices of their own, including “Masquenada” from the 1966 album The Americanization of Ooga Booga, Larry Willis’s “Inner Crisis” from 1972’s Home Is Where The Music Is and the perennial “Skokiaan” from the 1977 album Herb Alpert/Hugh Masekela.
The inevitable hits are here (“Grazing in the Grass,” “Ha Lese le Di Khanna,” “Stimela (Coal Train)”), plus the surprisingly 11th hour addition of “Win the World” – which, to be fair, sounds a little out of place here as it might on just about any Hugh Masekela or Till Brönner album – and some peculiar vocal choices including “Child of the Earth” and the absolutely dreadful “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (I would have preferred this album's "I Can't Dance" if something from this record had to be chosen).
Jonas Gwangwa’s terrific “She-Been” is also included here, but the intended version from the great and little-known 1978 Herb Alpert/Hugh Masekela album Main Event - Live was accidentally replaced here with the version Gwangwa performed with Masekela on the 1971 album Hugh Masekela and the Union of South Africa.
The generous two-disc compilation benefits particularly by four Masekela remixes especially commissioned for this compilation. The highlight is undoubtedly Götz Bühler and Nils Wülker’s tremendous “Languta (Afrocool Remix)," perfectly highlighting the right affectations and elements of Masekela’s great Fela-inspired piece while adding a strong contemporary groove worthy of the great Tony Allen (with whom Masekela recently recorded) and several bits of Masekela’s monologue from the 1965 Village Gate recordings that yielded The Americanization of Ooga Booga and The Lasting Impression of Hugh Masekela. Götz Bühler, incidentally, compiled the final set, so his thoughts on a great Masekela tune are particularly noteworthy.
Also noteworthy is Jazzanova’s invigorating take on “Stimela (Jazzanova Remix),” which keeps enough of Masekela’s original to matter and adds enough aural elegance that is absolutely right for the story that Masekela is trying to tell.
“In recent years,” says Jazzanova’s Stefan Leisring, “we have concentrated on writing completely separate, new songs and also presenting this material live with a band. Therefore, we have made very few remixes over the last three years. For us, it was a challenge to add appeal to Hugh Masekela’s ‘Stimela.’ The number has inspired us so much that we just had to do a remix of it.”
Samon Kawamura’s KaHeDi so completely makes over “U Dwi (KaHeDi Mix)” that it’s difficult to recognize the original in there. Still, it’s a tremendously fun little dance piece that seems somehow more inspired by Masekela than representative of him or his music in any way. Same goes for the altogether unrecognizable “In The Market Place (In The Market Dub)” by Moritz von Oswald, which like too much dub is a sound all its own and maybe something that isn’t quite right for a lot of Hugh Masekela’s work.
While it might not have been the set I would have done (I certainly would have gone with a better title), Hugh! The Best of Hugh Masekela is one of the best compilations that anybody has thus far attempted of Hugh Masekela’s music.
The set represents only a small fraction of the South African trumpet player’s music, but it takes in his most prodigious and productive years, mostly in America, during his exile from his homeland, and captures a lot of the music he is best-known for to this day.
Such a career retrospective is important for someone who has been recording and performing for over half a century (!) and has contributed much more to world music and the world of music than his available recordings would seem to indicate. Viva Bra Hugh!