Presents the Chisa Years 1965-1975
laying to Northeastern stiffs in a swanky jazz bar a few years ago, Hugh Masekela played a dirty trick. The band began without him, clicking into a polite, tasteful Afro-groove that was just Afro enough to give the stiffs something to talk about afterwards. Masekela joined the band and began warming up his flugelhorn. His solos were short, airless, and dribbled off pitch. He looked old, sounded faded and tired, but the stiffs were content: they were in the presence of authentic Afro-greatness.
Then, at some unseen signal, the band upped the volume and dropped the groove into a deeper pocket; Masekela let off a bronzed ascending blast that became an electrified and cocky solo, as though the power had come on and electrocuted the tasteful Afro-ness. Masekela paused, shook his horn like a weapon and grinned. Fooled you.
The Chisa Years has a similar sort of mischief, as a dusty archival exercise turns out to be a noisy house-party instead. Chisa records, owned by Masekela during a Californian stint in exile, was cheerfully omnivorous, but demonstrates Masekela’s heat-seeking pop instincts. “Joala” and “Za Labalaba,” traditionalist gospel-infused “township jazz” by The Zulus sits alongside the dense, funky polyrhythms and fuzz guitar solo of “Avhuomo.” Fela Kuti, The Black President, is the only African musician to approach Masekela in terms of scope and influence; “Afro Beat Blues” and “Ahvuomo” bear Fela’s imprint in their rhythmic stretch and layered, precise arrangements which pile up organs, multiple guitars, percussionists, backing singers and horn sections. But where Fela specialized in extended, egocentric, James Brown-style political raps, Masekela has a collaborative Motown vibe, making concise pop with all the talent he could recruit, which was plenty.
The decade collected here fell between the two major periods of African independence and was bookended, in South Africa, by the Sharpeville massacre and the Soweto uprising. There is an incendiary, angry charge to many of the songs, most overtly on “Witch Doctor.” The song re-imagines the “Livingstone, I presume” encounter as a “Heart of Darkness” odyssey to find Livingstone, the Witch Doctor in question: “Bring the ivory, bring geography / Bring the doctor back, he’s lost in the Congo.”
Masekela himself had a hit in 1968 with “Grazing in the Grass,” selling out Carnegie Hall the same year, but he maintains a low profile on these recordings. He sings lead on “Afro Beat Blues,” but never really lets his Satchmo-on-speed-instead-of-weed voice rip. His real triumph here is as a producer. Mbulu, known to Americans as the girl on “Liberian Girl” and a brief appearance on The Color Purple soundtrack, has a successor in Afro-pop modernist Zap Mama, the African Björk. Like Zap and Björk, Mbulu twists her voice into all manner of dissonant, unexpected harmonies, ecstatic trills, and guttural growls. “Mahlalela” begins with a vocal collage that sounds like an outtake from Medulla; “Melodi (Sounds of Home)” extends the collage, growing out of a call-and-response into something that fits somewhere in between RJD2’s lush, horn-driven sampling work and the sonic density of early Massive Attack. And it came out 35 years ago.
It is horribly unfair that this delicious music will be ghetto-ized under that awful Afro-prefix, where only the stiffs will find it. This music deserves better; why should the Afro-stiffs have all the fun?