Thursday, April 27, 2006

Hugh Masekela celebrated his 67th birthday this month, and while fans may remember him best for his jazzy 1968 breakout hit “Grazing in the Grass,” he’s anything but out to pasture.

Instead of slowing down, he keeps on going — like a Fela Kuti jam, adding another layer of complexity and driving through to the next crescendo.

The first notes of his life’s song — in which he has played trumpet, sang, produced and composed — were sounded in South Africa. “I was fascinated with music as a child, from the first time I heard the gramophone,” the artist recalls. “I was fascinated with music and still am; still from the perspective of a child. And it has taken me all over the world.”

Travel served the artist well, exposing him to and involving him in major music movements across the globe. He chilled with Dizzy Gillespie and recorded with fellow South African Miriam Makeba in New York City; went into the studio with Bob Marley in Jamaica; played with Fela Kuti in Nigeria; toured with Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and persuaded Don King to let him produce the Rumble in the Jungle concert.

The globe-trotting continues, and it’s “easier to tour now,” he notes, “because I’m living a healthier life,” says Mr. Masekela who in his six decades has battled more beasts than South Africa’s former system of apartheid. Rehab, eight years back, helped him trounce the demons of drug and alcohol addictions. Now, he begins each day with an hourlong walk followed by stretches, tai chi and yoga.

Currently in the midst of a cross-country tour, Mr. Masekela performs tonight at Zanzibar. “It’s really an atmosphere where people kick off their shoes and dance in the aisles,” he says of the popular nightspot on the District’s southwest waterfront. “Every time we’ve been at Zanzibar the people almost misbehave — they have such a good time,” he adds.

Fans can expect “a cross section of all the old favorites and some of the new stuff we’ve done,” Mr. Masekela says.

Traces of Mr. Masekela’s varied experiences appear on the more than 40 albums he’s put out over the years. Music became “not only a home away from home, but a very great expanded refuge,” he explains.

Those wishing to hear what refuge sounds like should pick up his latest release, “The Chisa Years: 1965-1976.” The compilation disc features rare and unreleased tracks Mr. Masekela laid down with friend and colleague Stewart Levine while running their own Chisa imprint.

During that decade, the duo recorded their group, the Zulus, and produced albums for a number of artists including the Crusaders. Unlike Mr. Masekela’s solo albums that have more of a jazz thrust, “The Chisa Years” presents an assembly of largely upbeat, dancey tracks built on traditional African sounds and township music. Atop this foundation, Motown, funk and classic rock riffs create texture.

Some argue Chisa created the first “world music,” a fairly ambiguous category that generally refers to non-Western music that incorporates Western elements. Although the genre owns a huge share of today’s market, Mr. Masekela says that the solid African backbone of the Chisa recordings “didn’t really register then. … We were a little early I guess.”

But not anymore.

The first turn of what Mr. Masekela calls a “mini-kaleidoscope of South African music” brings the funky-get-down, Fela Kuti-meets-James-Brown track “Afro Beat Blues.” Mr. Kuti himself introduced Mr. Masekela to the other musicians on this ditty, so it’s no surprise that this tune has the thickest, funkiest groove on the album.

Listeners should consider it a palate cleanser to prep them for what follows.

South African Letta Mbulu shows her vocal range throughout the disc, belting out the rocking “Mahlalea” and punctuating “Melodi (Sounds of Home)” with her bird-like soprano.

Elsewhere, the Zulus’ songs are constructed around complex tribal-sounding percussion, while the Johannesburg Street Band’s “Awe Mfana” closely resembles Mr. Masekela’s lively horn-heavy, jazz-infused township music style. Singer Miatta Fahinbulleh sings the down tempo, slightly eerie “Witch Doctor” and the pitch shifting “Ahvuomo.” In “Tepo,” a particularly juicy guitar solo puts her band, Baranta, in the spotlight.

“Even the most painful music, if you don’t know the language, sounds very joyous,” Mr. Masekela says.

He identifies this resilient quality as one of the major reasons South African music effectively turned the world’s eyes toward the atrocities of apartheid. “The music sort of hypnotized, enchanted them into understanding what was happening,” he says.

Along with publicizing their plight, the Chisa material also has helped its artists heal, Mr. Masekela says. “These are the things, the elements that sustained us when we were in exile. … [In our work,] we recall just about every element of our traditional life at home,” he says. “We remembered and reminded each other, and we researched our memories together.”

Striving to maintain this sense of community in spite of a heavy touring schedule, Mr. Masekela has begun diverting the energy needed to produce his own material into cultivating a thriving artistic scene in South Africa. His voice intensifies as he discusses “being part of the initiative to roll back some of the disadvantages that we have inherited.”

“A new influence will come out of Africa,” Mr. Masekela says, “once the [control] falls into the hands of African [movie] directors and musicians because they are more able, in the end, to protect the true culture of the countries that they come from.

“My focus is not on myself,” he says. “My focus is very much targeted to repaying as much as I can the gift that was given to me from the society I come from.”

WHAT: Hugh Masekela

WHEN: Tonight at 8 and 11:30

WHERE:Zanzibar on the Waterfront, 700 Water St. SW


INFORMATION: Call 202/554-9100 or visit on line at

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