photos by Andrzej “Andre” Pilarczyk
On a night celebrating 20 years of a free South Africa, The Swyer Theater at The Egg played host to a once in a lifetime show – Hugh Masakela and Vusi Mahlasela performing South African selections in an intimate setting. To start the night, Vusi Mahlasela took the stage alone, playing “Ubuhle”, a speedy bike ride after a slow climb on a guitar that sounded like a harpsichord with a hint of sitar. Joined after by Francis Fuster (percussion), Ian Herman (drums), Bakithi Kumalo (bass, who, along with Herman and Fuster kept a consistent beat throughout the night), Mongezi Ntaka (guitar) and finally, Hugh Masakela, the audience rose up to thunderous applause and welcomed the sound of South Africa to the stage.
Ubuntu, translated as ‘humanity towards others’, was mentioned for the first time this evening, prior to the song “Meadowlands”, featuring a jazz groove, Vusi’s vocals and Hugh’s trumpet. Hugh then spoke about how much of a privilege it was to play in Albany, and thanked Albany for their role in the anti-apartheid movement, likely referencing the 1981 protests against the South African rugby football team who came to Bleeker Stadium to play against a local club. Nods and rumbles of agreement echoed through the theater, as Hugh told us that tonight we would hear songs of love, protest, tradition, and revolution.
The legendary Mama Africa, Miriam Makeba, had her name invoked prior to “Thanayi”, pointing out that some form of beauty was to be found within all of us. Hugh performed in Troy, NY in the mid-90s with Makeba, a memorable experience that more than a few audience members chatted happily about in the theater lobby before and after the show. The cowbell intro to “Grazing in the Grass”, the most easily recognizable of the night’s songs, highlighted the trumpet once again as Masakela performed double-duty between the two instruments. “Weeping”, containing the melody from “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (the South African national anthem at a time when South Africans could not sing their own anthem under apartheid), was one of the more passionate and emotional songs of the evening. The lyrics reference moving past the anger over apartheid, rather than seek revenge after years of injustice:
It doesn’t matter now / It’s over anyhow / He tells the world that it’s sleeping / But as the night came round / I heard it’s lonely sound / It wasn’t roaring, it was weeping
As Masakela said early in the evening, “Forgiveness – all men should wear it like a crown.”
The show continued with “Say Africa”, an active crowd sing-along; Johnny Clegg’s ode to Nelson Mandela, “Asimbonanga”, clearly a more emotional and life affirming song for Hugh and Vusi, followed by “When You Come Back”, which told the story of the gold trains that traveled from countries in south and central Africa to Johannesburg, bringing miners to work 16 hour days. Hugh imitated the train whistle and screech eerily well, the tone of his voice and the threatening pace of the beat conveying the passions towards the exploitation of labor.
Naturally, the final songs of the evening would be more upbeat, and with Masakela saying to the crowd “Shake your bootie for all those old geezers” (a reference to Mandela and those he was sentenced to life in prison with), the crowd rose up and danced, waved their arms and sang “Bring him back home to Soweto”. For the final ten minutes, there was nonstop music, dancing and band introductions. An encore of “Pata Pata” was prefaced with an apology from Hugh, “Sorry, but you have to stand up and boogie harder”, the band singing “Dance, dance, dance, what a party!” and sending the crowd out with broad smiles and beaming with energy.
Professing the philosophy of Ubuntu throughout the night, Mahlasela and Masekela mentioned its many elements – love, helpfulness, neutrality, variety, and the redistribution of morals, knowledge and skills – throughout their music, a common theme that tied the night, audience and band together.
Setlist: Ubuhle, Meadowlands, Thanayi, Miyela Afrika, Grazing in the Grass, Weeping, Say Africa, Asimbonanaga, When You Come Back, Stimela, Bring Him Back Home, Unomeva
Encore: Pata Pata