Hugh Masekela is 75 years old. But you’d be forgiven for forgetting that small fact. The musician, whose career has seen him work closely with artists such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Paul Simon and his one-time wife Miriam Makeba, proudly demonstrated feat after feat of physical agility from the second he stepped out on to the stage. It was his way of greeting the audience with a wink and a nod that said, ‘Hugh’s still got it.’ What ensued was a euphorically cheerful and vibrant atmosphere that threatened to drown out the tone of even the most somber songs. As Masekela began his performance of ‘Stimela’, a heart-rending lament about the harsh realities for miners in South Africa, he struggled just as much as his audience did to mask his joy. This is because the overriding spirit of the evening was one of celebration — a celebration of Masekela’s 75th birthday and his legendary career.
Throughout the night the audience was treated to popular hits as well as more traditional southern African songs worked in with jazz, funk and afrobeat rhythms. Classics such as the aforementioned ‘Stimela’ made an appearance, alongside ‘Marketplace’, a romantic ballad about love and passion in the Congo, and ‘Lady’, Masekela’s rendition of Fela Kuti’s (feminist??) ode to African women.
In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s passing, it was a shame not to hear the much-loved ‘Bring Him Back Home’, which once called for the freedom of the former South African President. Notwithstanding, each piece was energetically delivered by Masekela and his ensemble and further amplified by the Barbican hall’s excellent acoustics.
Many of the songs played that night were far from new. They have been around for decades, some perhaps for centuries. But what Masekela’s excellent performance proved is that though they may be old, they will always be timeless.
So if you appreciate African music, and you haven’t started yet, it’s probably time to take a look into Masekela’s fantastic musical history, or at least try to catch a performance or two. I believe he said his next performances were in Baghdad, Damascus and Mogadishu… Seriously that’s what he said.