Hugh Masakela: The Chisa Years

Asked to list African music legends, today's Western listener likely cites King Sunny Adé, Fela Kuti, Ebenezer Obey, and Hugh Masekela (the latter perhaps best known for the 4-million selling 1968 single “Grazing in the Grass”). But beyond such relatively familiar names, there are innumerable others who made significant contributions to African culture yet who remain virtually unknown. Presents The Chisa Years: 1965-1975 (Rare And Unreleased) tries to right that wrong by granting such artists an opportunity for their work to be heard (much of the music presented sees light for the first time). Consequently, though it's Masekela who adorns the cover, the role assumed by the South African trumpeter (alongside label partner Stewart Levine) is largely that of originating producer, arranger, and compiler for the Chisa (Swahili for 'hot' or 'burning') label. For the record, Masekela does play trumpet on a few cuts, like the blues-funk jam “Afro Beat Blues” (which references Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone as much as anything 'purely' African) that's credited to Ojah, his working band at the time it was recorded in 1975.

Singing in her native tongue, Letta Mbulu drops powerful soul all over “Mahlalela” and “U Se Mcani,” the latter suggesting a Motown influence in its driving pulse (as it turns out, the Jazz Crusaders, who also recorded for Chisa during this period and comprise the rhythm section on Mbulu's tracks, also played on early Motown sessions like the first Jackson Five sessions, hence the similar feel).

The percussive-heavy grooves of Baranta's “Amo Sakesa” and “Tepo” teleport the listener to Africa 's center. Interestingly, the group's “Witch Doctor” is more dub-reggae than anything else, indicating the group's eagerness to assimilate influences from all global corners. Exploiting a familiar call-and-response vocal style, the group's “A Cheeka Laka Laka” merges warm dub and joyous Afrobeat into a satisfying hybrid. Elsewhere, The Zulus' uplifting gospel style is heard to great effect in “Joala” and in the joyous abandon of “Aredze.”

Two things in particular distinguish the collection: the artists' stylistic range (one hears jazz, rock, soul, gospel, dub, and R'n'B, as well as African juju and hi-life), and the generally unsanitized sound of the performances. At times an Afrobeat groove sensibility reminiscent of Fela surfaces, while at other moments the intricate guitar lattices of juju are heard; a swaying Mexican feel even emerges in Mbulu's “Macongo,” and the guitar soloing in “Tepo” and “Ahvuomo” suggests a Carlos Santana influence. Yet though Western influences emerge, they do so without supplanting the raw roots spirit of the African sound in the process.

May 2006