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Hugh Masekela: Live at the Market Theatre

Hugh Masekela should look less pained than he does on the cover of Live at the Market Theatre. The Johannesburg venue itself, celebrating its 30th anniversary when Masekela headlined in June 2006, is a proud symbol of the struggle against apartheid, having refused to segregate when such an act was still unheard of in South Africa. And Masekela himself, back home since the early ’90s after decades in exile, remains a worshiped figure there. This event should have been a celebration.

But contentment has never been a hallmark of Masekela’s character, and jazz has never been just music to him, but rather the sound of a people rising above. In his hoary voice and his unflappable playing, Masekela shoulders countless historical burdens, and though there is a joyousness to be heard, his work won’t be done until he’s done working.

Undeniably, Masekela’s earlier recordings, the late ’60s/early ’70s “township bop” that so fluently fused Africa and America, are more innovative, more determinedly crucial, than the lazy studio albums he’s turned out of late. But Live at the Market Theatre, though it won’t make anyone’s list of essential Masekela, is considerably richer than one might expect. Masekela, staying with flugelhorn, is brawny, bright and imposing, and his band and chorus, though not in the business of breaking new ground, ably fill in the blanks.

On tracks like “District Six” and “Mandela,” Masekela tempers his outspokenness with arrangements that are rounder at the edges than they might be. And “Grazing in the Grass,” Masekela’s fluke number one U.S. hit of 1968, is rendered perfunctorily, as if he has no choice but to include it. But the rocking grit of the closing “Thanayi” and the sincerity in Masekela’s cover of Fela Kuti’s “Lady” leave no doubt that he’s still giving his all.

Originally Published