This past weekend, a South African triple header graced the LA stage in a sold-out performance: trumpeter Hugh Masekela, Sotho singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela, and the all-male chorus, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Together, they’ve been on the road since last year, touring 20 Years of South African Freedom, which culminated in one final, spectacular celebration of ‘freedom, justice, and harmony’ at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Each of the three are musical heavyweights in their own right. Hugh Masekela was one of the first South African jazzmen to make a name for himself in the U.S, after fleeing apartheid in 1960. I was enthralled by his 1965 MGM Records debut, The Americanization of Ooga Booga. The album contains a bunch of South African songs, a Brazilian cut penned by Jorge Ben, and a tribute to John Coltrane. Between tracks, he describes his personal affinity for each songs in his gentle speaking voice, which I’ve always loved listening to.
Masekela had already been in the States for five years by that time, studying classical trumpet at the Manhattan School of Music, thanks to Harry Belafonte. I interviewed him once over the phone years ago, and he reminisced about jamming in the New York City mambo clubs and immersing himself in the thriving jazz scene of the ’60s and ’70s. His 1968 hit, “Grazing in the Grass,” topped the pop charts at No. 1, and he performed at the Monterey Pop Festival and many other major festivals around the world. Masekela returned to South Africa in 1990, when Nelson Mandela was finally released as a political prisoner after 27 years. His autobiography, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela, details his life growing up during South Africa’s oppressive apartheid years and chronicles his uniquely colorful life and career.
Fellow freedom fighter and singer-songwriter, Vusi Mahlasela, is often referred to as ‘The Voice’ of South Africa by his fans around the world, known for his powerfully impressive vocalization techniques and his songs about universal freedom. Born in 1965 in Mamelodi, a small township outside of Pretoria, where he still lives, Mahlasela’s music landed him in solitary confinement during the apartheid years for his ‘revolutionary’ songs about freedom, justice, and harmony.
As champions of South African freedom, Masekela’s “Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)” (1986) and Mahlasela’s “When You Come Back” (1992) became two of the most popular anti-apartheid anthems, expressing the fervently shared hope among so many for democratic change. In 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected as president, formally ending 350 years of apartheid (dating as far back as Dutch colonization), Mahlasela was invited to perform at his inauguration.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a men’s Zulu choir named after the Ladyship Township in South Africa. During apartheid, men were forced to live in communal barracks in the big cities, separated from their wives and families, sometimes leading to these all-male choirs. Most people know of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, thanks to Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986). We actually began featuring their import LPs back in 1982, when we first started our African music programs at KCRW. Travelers and fans would bring us their albums, which we shared with Paul Simon, inspiring Graceland.
This weekend’s show saw the first-ever collaboration between South African music giants, Hugh Masekela and Vusi Mahlasela, along with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Acts as big as these don’t often make it to the West Coast, so when they do, we’re lucky to have them.