Hugh Masekela VS The Rolling Stones

by Jon Savage

As blasphemous as this might sound, I often find a lot of current South African jazz mundane and boring. Not always, but more often than I’d like.

Don’t get me wrong, I acknowledge, admire and respect that we have some of the greatest jazz talents on earth in SA, and I am truly in awe of a lot of them. But I’m not referring to their talent or ability here, I’m trying to isolate the modern style of South Africa jazz itself. The tempo’s often feel plodding and sparse, the chord structures can feel slow and obvious, while the melodies are often too repetitive. Sometimes, local jazz can border on elevator music.

But, when I listen to the older jazz records, even though I can hear that the elements are musically the same, what I hear on vinyl can be electrifying. It’s the vitality of the playing that I miss.

“The Promise of a Future” is quite possibly my favourite Hugh Masekela album and, as a bonus, was also the vehicle for one of my favourite and most impressive pieces of SA music trivia ever – something so incredible that I’m surprised more people don’t speak about it more often.

But we’ll get to that.

The excitable attitude of the musicians on this LP jump off the grooves. It’s 1968, Masekela has recently divorced Miriam Makeba, is exiled from his home and is living and touring in the USA with an incredible band. It’s Apartheid and South Africa is in an upswing of violence and Masekela’s state of mind is desperate, but at the same time seems determined to try inspire a semblance of hope.

In a statement of boldness, Masekela starts Side A with an instrumental cover version of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – but it’s played with such elation and bravado that you’d think Chuck Carter might possibly be an epileptic as well as a drummer. The rest of the band play as if their lives depend on it and therein lies the secret genius of this whole album.

Through each song, whether fast or slow, Masekela plays with such urgency that his personal agony is swallowed whole by each song – but instead of it feeling overbearing, it somehow comes across as vulnerable in a way that is unsuspecting and powerful. And when Hugh sings, the hairs on your arms will not only stand up, they will salute.

I keep trying to imagine what the American’s must have thought when they first heard Hugh sing!?! His guttural, emotional, tribal vocal sound must have scared them; so haunting, so alien –  I imagine he must have shocked the world!

Here’s a treat for you; one of the final songs on “The Promise of a Future” – click the link for Bajabule Bonke, close your eyes and listen to Hugh sing ! Wow!

But the real album highlight, and one of the standout moment of Masekela’s whole career is “Grazin in the grass,” one of my favourite songs of all time from any artist – so much so that I used to play it regularly on my 5FM show (despite it seeming completely out of place). “Grazin” is an uptempo instrumental jive with a thumping rhythm section and an unforgettable melody. It’s just so cool, so driving, so lively! Man, that song gets me every time!

Evidently, I’m not the only one who thinks so  … here comes that piece of music trivia I was telling you about earlier:

Jumpin Jack Flash was one of the Rolling Stones’ biggest songs of their entire career and was the NUMBER ONE song on the US BILLBOARD Charts in 1968 … until Hugh came along and knocked them off with this cooking little number!

Yes, let me repeat : Hugh Masekela’s instrumental jazz tune, Grazin’ in the Grass, knocked the Rolling Stones off the US Billboard Chart and became the number one hit song in the US in 1968!

Sometime we forget that Masekela was a Tyranosaurus Rex of the international music scene in those years and that he played a vital part in bringing a piece of South Africa to the world.

And this is the album that did it! Get it if you can find it!

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