Review: Hugh Masekela


Review: Hugh Masekela, London Symphony Orchestra, LSO Community Chorus, cond. François-Xavier Roth
(Barbican, December 10th 2009)


Hugh Masekela is a musician with a real soul. He has a genuine warm, charismatic, and simple way of building special relationships, both with his fellow musicians and with an audience.

Last night, in a sold-out Barbican Hall, the 70-year old Masekela was very much on home ground. A recurrent theme in this concert, reprising and developing from a similar event in November 2007, was the special relationship between the homeland of South Africa and "London" - playfully, repeatedly pronounced by Masekela with estuary vowels. Masekela paid tribute, for example, to one famous beacon of hope : the permanent 24/365 vigil maintained for many years outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square.

All those links felt very immediate last night. Not only was Masekela surrounded on stage by London-based exiles, there were also large sections of the audience from London's massive community of South Africans. The kind of people who, one could feel, all have their own story, their own memories the apartheid years, of Sharpeville perhaps, of daily earth tremors in Johannesburg. Unlike a phony singer who recently, embarrasingly flunked it at the Stade de France, these were people who know the words to Nkosi Sikelele Africa off by heart -and needed no encouragement at all to get up on their feet and to sing it.

This was a concert with authentic and emotional moments aplenty. Nomathemba was deliciously brought to life by veteran bass clarinettist John Stenhouse of the LSO. Then the LSO Community Chorus started to dig into that infectious South African groove, where the and-of-four is always hit far, far harder than the first beat. Stimela, with Masekela falsetto-shrieking the sound of a train whistle, was electrifying and unforgettable. Masekela's brief duet with LSO tuba player Patrick Harrild in Grazing was another moment of pure joy.

Other parts felt slightly over-produced, as if multiple agendas were going on. I wasn't sure exactly why the evening needed two dry ice machines. There was busy, detailed orchestral writing which got buried - the double bass section seemed to be doing regular inaudible gym routines.

Each half began with a brief, interesting, and newly commissioned composition, dropped into the menu with the compliments of the LSO like an appetiser or zakouski. Jason Yarde 's Rude Awakening began with a gentle, pastoral Aubade, which then shifted through Messiaen's soundscapes to a cycled groove and a sudden ending. Yarde was also responsible for some very effective arrangements throughout the evening, and appeared in the second half as an inventive alto saxophone soloist. Andrew McCormack 's Incentive reminded me of Stravinsky's Agon, building tension with cross-rhythms. François-Xavier Roth conducted throughout with both precision and balletic grace. The LSO Community Chorus, in their second outing of this music, and strengthened by South Africans, were delightful.

But above all it was an evening for memory and for emotion. The morphing of Masekela from Jazz Epistle, to fronting pile-driving US fusion bands, to the statesman who now fronts a symphony orchestra, is one of the great musical journeys of our time.

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