Jun 28, 2009

Hugh Masekela - The Chisa Years 1965-1975

In the midst of the recording industry reinvention—which includes the rebirthing of a new paradigm of music presentation and creation—independent artists find themselves in positions of both power and dismay. While the platform for launching a successful career is, quite literally, at their fingertips, the sheer number of bands promoting themselves is exhausting. So the challenge remains: how does an artist differentiate their sound and reach a broad population? This question is lodged at the tips of many tongues. Independent artistry is not new, and when a collection like this emerges from dusty vaults, we are reminded of one direly important aspect of songcrafting: making music for the love of it. Listening to the 14 tracks on The Chisa Years, we are certain trumpet/flugelhorn player Hugh Masekela didn’t have gold records on his mind (even if some ultimately manifested over the years).

For 11 years, Masekela and musician/roommate Stewart Levine produced a number of jazz-based records influenced deeply by African styles like mbaqanga and Afrobeat. While Masekela’s 1968 hit “Grazing in the Grass” proved his crossover potential, labels like Motown couldn’t figure out how to market him in all his artistic complexity. Hence, Chisa Records remained an indie effort. Listening to this incredible collection, it seems an anomaly these songs went unreleased for three decades. Then again, innovation takes time for people to catch onto; surprise shouldn’t cut so deeply. With the recent explosion of African music by way of artists like Fela Kuti, Orchestra Baobab, and Konono No 1, Masekela’s closet was in prime shape to be opened.

Whether performing or sitting behind the controls, his masterful hand created genius works throughout this compilation. The opening cut, with its evident debt to Fela, sounds familiar, much like an outtake you could find on the Gilles Peterson Africa disc or Shadow Records’ Afro-Rock comp. That is, simply, Fela-inspired funk, led by Ojah, Masekela’s backing band. “Afro Beat Blues” is deep in the bass, fueled by guitar-driven hypnosis and a solid drumbeat. Funk remains the constant: Letta Mbulu’s passionate vocal delivery on “Mahlalela,” the conga-driven groove-riding “Amo Sakesa,” with a sensual Miatta Fahinbulleh leading the lyrical charge, and “U Se Mcani,” another killer cut by Mbulu. While tracks range in tempo and tone, a few constants are felt: excellent horns and percussion, repetitive trance-inducing guitars and drumbeats, and a rare occasion in which every vocal part is phenomenal.

Masekela’s penchant for finding mainstream avenues of expression in America, while retaining African sensibilities, has reached highs and lows over his four-decade career. While much of the music he created for larger audiences ended up unfortunately sterile, The Chisa Years marks a man in his youthful prime, unconcerned about marketing or charts. That it took so long to surface is too bad, but the fact that it has at all is cause for celebration.


1. Afro Beat Blues
2. Mahlalela
3. Amo Sakesa
4. Joala
5. U Se Mcani
6. Tepo
7. Za Labalaba
8. Witch Doctor
9. Melodi (Sounds of Home)
10. Ahvuomo
11. Aredze
12. A Cheeka Laka Laka
13. Awe Mfana
14. Macongo