Live at the Market Theatre
ugh Masekela’s Live at the Market Theatre is a historical document; the album celebrates 30 years of Johannesburg’s rebellious, dissident arts venue, one of the few places where even during the dark days of apartheid mixed race audiences could sit together and watch iconoclastic works like “Woza Albert,” a play that wrung irreverent comedy from the ironies of a visit by the Messiah to South Africa. (The authorities shoot a missile at Jesus as he walks across the bay from the prison on Robben Island, inadvertently destroying most of Cape Town.) The album was recorded in the year Hugh Masekela turns 67, secure in his place as grand old man of South Africa’s musical struggle yet obstreperous enough to take potshots at the current generation of African leadership (“These are people who sit to dinner together, who drink wine together. I won’t say they protect each other, but they are not going to do anything.”) His grizzled frown on the album cover looks as indomitable as ever, but leaves the sneaking impression that Masekela may have been overtaken by the times.
For there are moments when the album struggles under the weight of all that history. Masekela is a shit-stirrer by temperament, and his slightly knock-knee’d tributes to the current South African government, on tracks like the preternaturally patient “District Six,” come across as more dutiful than heartfelt. Masekela breaks out the best of his raging protest songs, including “(Bring Back Nelson) Mandela” and “Stimela,” but the context is entirely different. When he dedicates “Stimela” to anyone in the audience working for almost no pay, the audience giggles: the Market, like Masekela’s music perhaps, is now a luxury concern for South Africa’s rising classes. It is not Masekela’s best version of the song—it is hard to top the incendiary take from the 1987 “Graceland” concert in Harare—but his eloquent horn solo and the band’s scrupulous attention to detail belies Masekela’s determination that neither he nor the history he has recorded in song be forgotten.
The album opens with implausible strength, with an all-in take on “Ibala Lami,” one of the more satisfying of Masekela’s post-’94 compositions, followed up with a muscular, crotch-rooted funk reading of “The Boy’s Doin’ It,” and the even toothier “Ashiko,” complete with unrepentant keyboard stabs. Masekela’s voice is as devastated and life-worn as Dylan’s current incarnation, but unlike Dylan’s death rattle, Masekela can muster all the force of a steamroller. When he calls for a response from the audience, it takes several attempts and much encouragement before the audience does any justice to Masekela’s scorching call. “We’re doing some serious Godspeak here,” he says.
Nor is Masekela’s history lesson limited to South Africa. On “Market Place” he mounts an acute impersonation of Louis Armstrong, his most obvious antecedent, then gleefully shatters the atmosphere by impersonating a flute in the goofiest scat solo you can imagine, splitting his voice in a ragged but bizarrely tuneful falsetto, like firewood shooting sparks. He also namedrops his only rival for the position of African musical icon, Fela Kuti, with a faithfully bruising cover of Fela’s “Lady.”
Like most of Masekela’s recent output, the album is inessential, particularly when compared to older material like the vital Chisa archival album. Live at the Market Theatre is long, and is unlikely to attract multiple listens, beset as it is with the foibles and shenanigans of a revivalist show. Yet even here there are delights to be found: for an album, Masekela takes far too long introducing his band, but the sheer pleasure he takes in the phonics of the names, revelling in rolled r’s, furred fricatives, and prickled explosives, is its own kind of jazz.
Live at the Market Theatre is the sound of a man who sees no distinction between music and life, and has lived accordingly. It is a more than welcome State of the Union address by the only African statesman worthy of the title.