Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Concert Review; Hugh Masekela and the Chissa All Stars- Friday, February 15, 2008; Phoenix Theatre, Toronto.

This is a special tour for Hugh Masekela, a man who has played tiny clubs and packed stadiums from Canada to South Africa. For a rather small number of dates in the States and in Toronto and Ottawa (his only Canadian stops) Hugh has brought along a few artists from his recently revived Chisa label, now with an extra ‘s’, forming the Chissa All Stars. Hugh has probably done more for South African music than any other single person. His hybrid of Township and American jazz sounds, swaying deep into each territory (and beyond) through his fifty year career, has inspired audiences and musicians around the world. Hugh’s accompaniment this time included an excellent horn player who took on some intense solos, and a violin player who added a new element to the band’s sound. There were also a couple of guest singers; Busi Moholgo and Kwaito singer Corlea, who proved to be an audience favourite. Often described as African hip hop, a lot of Kwaito music has more in common with modern R&B than any rap I ever listen to.

The most stunning of Hugh’s guests tonight was a lady he introduces as his sister, Sibongile Kuhmalo. She performed with Hugh at Harbourfront about eight years ago, and her voice is as powerful as ever. Her operatic style brought the house down with the sheer strength and control of her voice. She even seemed to have caught some of her band mates off guard, tonight.

The Phoenix was packed tight, and this was created by somebody’s plan to place seats across most of the club’s floor space, leaving only the perimeter of the room for standing. While the band was well received from the start, nobody encroached upon the bare patch of floor in front of the stage until Hugh invited the ladies in the house to do so. It was still pleasing to see such a strong turn out, especially after Hugh’s sparsely attended concerts at the Comfort Zone some years ago.

Hugh alternated between singing songs about his homeland, where he grew up in a Township shebeen (an illegal bar which are common in South African Townships which pay off the police to stay in business), and simply playing trumpet or flugelhorn or leaving the stage to let various Chissa All Stars take over. While they sounded unmistakably African, the band features decidedly western instruments including a giant bass guitar and a set of timbales in the back, near the drum kit.

“Grazing In The Grass” turned into an extended jam that thrilled the crowd. I wish Hugh would perform “Riot”, his follow-up single, but the brass interplay through “Grazing In The Grass” was such a treat, that one can easily forgive Hugh for ignoring much of his late sixties output.

The African continent was well represented both on and off stage. As Hugh called out the home towns, countries and townships of each of the Chissa All Stars, some people in the crowd hollered back in recognition, every time.

Before announcing the encore “Bring Him Back Home”, Masekela’s 1987 tribute to Nelson Mandela, Hugh cited Toronto as a stronghold of anti-apartheid activism. Many in the audience sang along with this finale, and the crowd, at least those who weren’t still seated, danced one last time. Hugh Masekela doesn’t play here that often, making this night all the more special.

Pictures can be seen at;

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