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Various Artists: Hugh Masekela Presents the Chisa Years 1965-1975

When trumpeter, flugelhornist and vocalist Hugh Masekela arrived in the U.S. in 1961, he was a man without a home. South Africa’s apartheid government was in full crackdown mode, and activist musicians like Masekela were routinely shaken down for their meddling ways. So he left the country for London, then on to New York City, where he enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music. There he met Stewart Levine, a Bronx-born aspiring producer who shared Masekela’s love of jazz, booze, and drugs-not necessarily in that order.

The two men partied their way into a partnership called Chisa, which produced and released records by the Crusaders, Baranta, and Letta Mbulu, and they formed their own band, the Zulus, which played an updated take on South African township jive. Some of the results of Masekela and Levine’s various collaborations are heard on The Chisa Years, a 14-track collection of rare-but-prime Afrobeat-cum-R&B cuts.

The three songs by the Zulus, along with “Awe Mfana” by Johannesburg Street Band, are swinging examples of mbaqanga, the buoyant and cyclical South African popular-music style. Other tracks are steeped in the edgy funk of the times, albeit with overt African overtures: Mbulu’s “Mahlalela” is an ass-shakin’ R&B tune sung in Zulu; Ojah and Masekela’s “Afro Beat Blues” takes on the style developed by Fela Kuti; and Baranta and Miatta Fahnbulleh ride a dread-filled reggae groove on “Witch Doctor.” Masekela may not have been welcome in South Africa, but at least he could bring the country’s music to his new home.

Originally Published