Hugh Masekela – “Grazing In the Grass”

Hugh MasekelaThis South African trumpeter scored a massive worldwide hit with “Grazing In The Grass,” becoming one of the biggest names in African music in the process.

South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela has at times been cursed in his life. But he’s emerged on the other side, coming back strong since the end of apartheid, settled back at home, having conquered demons personal and political. He is still making music on the cornet and flugelhorn and singing.

 

Hugh Ramopolo Masekela was born on 4 April 1939 in Witbank, near Johannesburg. Masekela showed musical ability from a young age, and began to play piano as a child. Inspired by the movie Young Man with a Horn, Masekela began to play the trumpet, encouraged by anti-apartheid activist Father Trevor Huddleston, who helped him acquire the instrument.

At Huddleston’s request, Masekela then received tuition in trumpet playing form Uncle Sauda, who played for the Johannesburg ‘Native’ Municipal Brass Brand. Masekela soon mastered the trumpet, and began to play with other aspiring musicians in the Huddleston Jazz Band – South Africa’s first youth orchestra.

As the apartheid situation in South Africa worsened, Masekela left for London, then New York, where friends (principally countrywoman Miriam Makeba, to whom he was briefly married) helped him land a place at the Manhattan School of Music. Masekela played on the Byrds’ classic rock hit “So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star” and performed at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of ’67.

Already unclassifiable because of the breadth of his music, the next year “Grazin’ In The Grass” made him a huge pop star with its laid-back, easy vibe, hitting the charts in several countries—it reached number one on the Billboard pop and R&B charts in America. The track itself was just filler, recorded in half an hour, but it brought him international fame; suddenly, he was a headlining name. Then, in 1972, he turned his back on all that, and headed back to Africa.

 

After moving through several countries, he hooked up with Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, who introduced him to the Ghanaian band Hedzoleh Sound, with whom Masekela recorded a string of hits. In the 1980s, Masekela set up a mobile studio in Botswana, where he further developed his musical style using African mbaqanga strains. Masekela performed with Paul Simon on the Graceland tour, along with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Masekela defended Simon vigorously when the tour was seen as a violation of the African National Congress’ cultural boycott. His 1987 hit ‘Bring Him Back Home’ became the anthem for Nelson Mandela’s world tour, following his release from prison in 1992.

Masekela then returned to England, co-penning the successful musical Sarafina before joining Paul Simon’s Graceland tour. Finally, with the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990, Masekela was able to return to South Africa, recording and touring there once more.

Orchestra Baobab – “Specialists In All Styles”

From ominous beginnings as the weekend house band at a Dakar club for government officials, Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab, named for the club (which in turn took its name from the native baobab tree), went on to become one of the prominent bands of world music, with an influence that extended far beyond their national boundaries, throughout West Africa and into Europe. Put together by original leader and saxophonist Baro N’Diaye, the first version was a seven-piece group, three of them enticed away from Dakar’s biggest band, the Star Band, who had a regular gig at Ibra Kasse’s club. While they had a strong Cuban influence — Cuban music had been a prevalent sound throughout West Africa since the ’40s, imported by sailors and played on the radio — Orchestra Baobab added African music, in large part from griot singer Laye M’Boup, who had a vast repertoire of Wolof material.

In the glamorous world of Senegal’s 1970s nightclub scene, there was only one band worth dressing up for. Orchestra Baobab formed in 1970 as the house band for Dakar’s Baobab club, where artists, politicians, intellectuals, movie stars and the occasional visiting dictator met to dance to the band’s mix of Cuban and Casamance (south Senegalese) rhythms. Hired to play the music that audiences wanted to hear from traditional songs to the latest chart hits, Orchestra Baobab rapidly outgrew their status as a house band and became famous all over Africa.


It wasn’t long before the new sound proved so popular that the group wasn’t just entertaining on weekends, but every night of the week, being hailed on par with Guinea’s legendary Bembeya Jazz National for their fusion of sounds. Inevitably, personnel fluctuated and the new musicians brought their own influences, expanding the feel and range of the band with Maninke and Malinke songs, which became integrated into the whole. Perhaps the most important addition was singer Thione Seck, who took over the lead vocalist spot after the death of M’Boup in a 1974 car wreck.

While Senegal’s élite danced till dawn with their soignée girlfriends, Orchestra Baobab began leavening the strictly Cuban diet with a rich array of African elements. Atisso brought his idiosyncratic version of the Congolese guitar style, Gomis the lilting ballads of the Casamance, Senegal’s forested southern region. Nigerian saxophonist Peter Udo introduced a touch of honking high life, while Ndiouga Dieng, a griot, a traditional praise singer, represented the neo-Islamic sounds of Dakar’s hinterland.

 

They continued to play the Baobab Club regularly, but also entertained at state occasions, such as official New Year’s Eve dances and even at the wedding of designer Pierre Cardin’s daughter in Paris. Finally, the Baobab Club closed in 1979 and the band went on to make their home at the Ngalam nightclub (or the Djandeer Club, according to some historians). Also during this time, they tried to make their mark in Europe by traveling to Paris in 1978. They recorded On Vera Ca: The 1978 Paris Sessions, one of their best discs and certainly the best-produced, although it leaned too heavily on their Spanish-language material. Other than that, the trip proved to be a disaster, losing money, and they returned home. At the beginning of the ’80s, they were indisputably Senegal’s biggest band.

They recorded regularly (two albums, Mouhamadou Bamba and Sibou Odia were edited into Bamba, a 1983 U.S. release), and continued to stretch their limits by bringing in more African influence, which reached its height with the classic Pirates Choice of 1982.

 

But while Baobab remained Senegal’s top group up to the late Seventies, the balance of society was changing. The band barely noticed it, but out in the quartiers populaires , the sprawling, largely impoverished suburbs, where nobody cared about suits, ties or the cha-cha-cha, a pop revolution was underway, centred round a young singer, Youssou N’Dour, and a raw new music called Mbalax. The African percussion that had been subsumed into Baobab’s gentle sound was brought right to the surface, alongside griot vocals, sax and rhythmic guitar; the linguistic medium was exclusively Wolof, the lingua franca of modern Senegal.

Suddenly finding themselves without gigs, and unwilling to adapt to the new trends, Baobab split and might have ended up a mere footnote in musical history were it not for the belief of a small number of Western enthusiasts, notably Nick Gold of World Circuit Records. While new African music was becoming increasingly formulaic – N’Dour’s huge-selling ‘7 Seconds’ with Neneh Cherry being a prime example – Baobab’s music harked back to the earthy, organic feel that had attracted Western ears in the first place.

They tried to compete by updating their sound, but it didn’t work and by 1987, Orchestra Baobab had disbanded. However, everything comes full circle and in 2001, with the European reissue of an expanded Pirates Choice (2002 U.S.), Orchestra Baobab, older and wiser, re-formed and played dates around the globe, going into the studio to make a new album — produced by the man responsible for their fall from grace, Youssou N’Dour.

 

Blitz The Ambassador – “Native Sun”

 

Native Sun is the follow up to Blitz The Ambassador’s 2009 soulful blend of hip-hop “Stereotype”. Using the jazzy sounds of his previous efforts and taking it one step further, Blitz embraces his African roots and thus we are treated to an expansive mix of hip-hop and afrobeat.

 

An ancient horn takes centre stage and removes us from our comfort zone. This sound is quickly joined by light African drumming, and we are left wondering how Blitz is going to rap over such traditional production. But we are quickly reminded this is a hip-hop album as the track begins to incorporate vinyl scratching and other more familiar sounds. Lyrically Blitz is taking us on a cinematic journey through his homeland. It’s a burst of creative genius using the medium of positive hip-hop music.

“Dear Africa” is an open letter to his country of birth. “I wonder how you keep a smile on your face, sun is still shining reminding me of your warm embrace”, it is a genuinely poetic piece of writing which is complemented by a rich blend of mellow sounds.

He is accompanied by Les Nubians on the chorus which adds to the authentic nature of the album.“Akwaaba” is rapped almost entirely in African (a common feature of the album) but its uplifting horns and uptempo rhythms means it remains universal in it’s appeal. At first the sounds are a little unusual to the casual listener, but we are soon immersed in the world of Native Sun and I for one fully embraced its bold delivery.

A real highlight of the LP is “Best I Can” Feat. Corneille. It features haunting guitar strings combined with Blitz rapping at a pace which comes close to a Bizzy Bone or Twista. Lyrically he pours out his heart on this track whilst a distorted choir further enhance his verses. Corneille sings “I hear these voices in my head, I look at the choices that I made, trying to be the best I can”. It is a reflective mantra which encapsulates the mood of the song.

The use of gently strum guitars is evident throughout the project, usually accompanied by soft drums. Although you could be forgiven for thinking that this music sounds light, Blitz carries a powerful lyrical style which brings a revolutionary message of unity.  Therefore it is anything but.

A jazzy interlude serves as a bridge to the second part of the album. “Accra City Blues” is a journey through a war torn city, I would compare it favourably to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, it may yet become an African hip-hop anthem for years to come. Certainly it reflects the people better than past attempts by plastic artists such as Akon. Many mainstream attempts at African music often result in tokenism, this is the real deal. The choice of guests on the album is a real strong point.

Chuck D. makes a brief appearance on “The Oracle” whilst underground favourite Shad joins Blitz on the title track “Native Sun”. The cohesive nature of the sounds make it impossible to separate their quality.

Rather than feeling like a track by track album, it plays more like a melting pot of expermental music which amazingly keeps shape amongst the chaos of African/hip-hop fusion.

The pieces are emotionally layered in that they are both celebratory and honest in their representation of African life. Proceedings come to a close with “Ex-Itrance”, a continuation of traditional African sounds met with Blitz in spoken word form.

At 12 tracks long the project is a neat 44-minutes and yet there is enough music to digest for years to come. It does what every great album should do and leaves a lasting impression.