Hugh Masekela at Bath Music Festival

The South African trumpeter marks a return of big name jazz to the Bath Music Festival, as Neil McKim discovers

Hugh Masekela at Bath Music Festival
Hugh Masekela at Bath Music Festival

‘If you know this tune you must be old,’ challenged trumpeter Hugh Masekela. He had brought the entire Bath Music Festival audience to its feet for the last few songs of his Bank Holiday concert at The Forum. The orderly rows in the stalls had been lost in a sea of dancing as a substantial segment of the crowd had drifted towards the stage, moved by the mix of upbeat township jazz and Masekela’s animated stage presence (he still has all the moves at 75). With its distinctive cowbell-percussion opening, the song in question, ‘Grazing In The Grass’ was a number one US hit in 1968.

The suited Hugh Masekela took to the stage amid cheers, following a successful support set from Bristol-based Hélélé, fronted by Cameroonian Alphonse Daudet Touna on balafon (marimba). Masekela’s own six-piece band delivered his most well-known tunes, including ‘Chileshe’, with its uplifiting guitar and flugelhorn introduction, the politically charged ‘Stimela’, about the ‘cursed’ train that takes workers to the mines in Johnannesburg, and the stirring ‘Ha Le Se Le Li Khanna’, with its driving cowbell beat and soaring vocals. He introduced ‘Khawuleza’, explaining its origins as a warning cry ahead of police raids on shebeens (illegal drinking dens) in the early 1960s. ‘The paradox was that it was the police themselves who had delivered the booze!’

Masekela’s concert signals a return to form for jazz at the Bath Music Festival. Over the last few decades The Forum has hosted concerts by some of the greatest names in jazz, including saxophonist Sonny Rollins, violinist Stéphane Grappelli and pianist McCoy Tyner but big name jazz attractions have dipped in recent years. This fresh boost is clearly thanks to the new team at the top, which includes input from Serious, the organisation behind London Jazz Festival. This is proof that Bath is now back in capable jazz hands.

During the concert, the stage lighting projected huge shadows of Masekela on either side of the auditorium. The Forum’s beautiful art deco interior is a reminder of its former life as a cinema. Someone once told me that among the last movies to be shown here, in 1969, was Hello Dolly, featuring Louis Armstrong. There is a strong connection between the trumpet legend and Masekela. As a youth Masekela benefited from the use of a trumpet that Armstrong had donated to his band in South Africa (led by Father Trevor Huddleston) and after Masekela had gone into exile, he had a chance to meet his childhood hero in New York.

The final song was one of the anthems of the anti-apartheid era, ‘Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)’. Masekela paid tribute to all those who had fought for the cause. ‘The people of South Africa have celebrated 21 years as a free nation,’ he announced. He is due to be awarded a Lifetime Achievement award at the upcoming Jazz FM Awards on 10 June. This is fitting recognition for this performer who embodies so much of his country’s recent history in every performance.

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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