Rejoice! – a new album from Hugh Masekela and Tony Allen is landing

“Without [drummer] Tony Allen,” Fela Anikulapo Kuti once said, “there would be no Afrobeat.” For countless fans of South African jazz, the same is true about that genre for trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who died almost exactly two years ago.

Hugh & Tony
Hugh Masekela, Tony Allen

Late last week the World Circuit label, with the approval of the Masekela estate, announced the March 20 release of an album, Rejoice ( ) enshrining a unique 2010 London session when the two – who had known one another professionally for four decades – worked together in a London studio on a set of eight original compositions, described by Allen as a “sort of South African-Nigerian-swing-jazz stew”.

The plan had been to expand the duo’s music with instrumental overdubs at a later date and they were archived awaiting that time, Masekela’s health declined, and in 2018 he died. Allen and producer Nick Gold picked up the project again last year, adding an ensemble comprising bassists Tom Herbert and Mutale Chashi, keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones (whom South Africans saw at CTIJF 2019), and reedman Steve Williamson.

The mutual admiration between Masekela and Fela since their first meeting in the 1970s is well documented, as is Masekela’s interest in West African sounds. Fela often credited Masekela as an influence; Masekela recorded in his autobiography Still Grazin’ how, when playing with Fela and Africa ‘70 at the musician’s legendary Lagos base, the Shrine, “the textures were just too beautiful; I couldn’t wait for the next solo.”

Hugh & Femi 2010 worldcup
Memories: Hugh Masekela with Fela Kuti’s son Fela at the 2010 football World Cup opener

In subsequent performances throughout the trumpeter’s career, he would often preface his performance of the Nigerian’s satirical Lady with a tribute: “This one’s for Fela.” They bonded at a time when both young men were leading wild lives. But what united them on a much deeper level was their shared and passionate concern for social justice and African musical authenticity.

Tony Oladipo Allen had been a young but well admired Lagos circuit musician, earning his bread as a radio engineer and working hard with his own and other pop and highlife bands until he was recruited in 1968 by Fela for his first band, Koola Lobitos , which transformed into Africa ’70 after Fela’s first US tour. He stayed with the outfit for just over a decade, making close to 40 albums including three as leader, and only quitting in 1979 after one too many disputes about Fela’s regular refusals to pay his musicians.

Fela & Tony
Tony Allen with Africa 70

What Fela heard in the young Tony Allen, and what made his playing unique then and now, was a combination of intricate complexity, married to an unprecedented lightness of touch.

Bassist Meshell Ndegeocello told Rolling Stone :“I was accustomed to a hard and rigid sort of drive in the drums. Hearing Tony Allen really opened my mind up to fluidity and the understanding of agility within the pulse.”

The lightness, Allen explained, was reinforced by something he’d learned in the States: practising with his sticks on pillows to reinforce the bounce. Allen is a literally polyrhythmic drummer, in that each of his four limbs contributes something different to his tapestry of sound. That comes from an earlier time when,  listening avidly to his father’s juju and highlife records and to Art Blakey, Max Roach and legendary fellow-countryman Guy Warren, he realised something was missing from the run-of-the mill highlife he was hearing; something he did hear in jazz.

“Watching drummers playing in my country,” he told The Wire’s Francis Gooding , “I knew that something was wrong somewhere. Why is it that they don’t use their hi-hats? It’s there, it’s always there, but its closed, they don’t use it – well, they used it, but that thing has a pedal, you know? I felt that this thing should be like riding a bicycle – you have good legs, you have pedals, you need to put [your feet] on both pedals to make you move. You can’t start riding a bicycle with one leg, when you have two legs, and the other pedal is there.

“So, it was that, and then I had to find a way of playing my drums, playing highlife, like everybody, but – I had read this hi-hat teaching from Max Roach, and I said, yes, I know this thing is supposed to be used. So I tried to adapt it. I had to practise, to adapt this movement of the hi-hat plus what we were doing before, and that changed my movement, my way of playing, directly, you know? Every drummer in the country at that time… when I was playing in the local highlife band, they would come to watch, asking me, ‘What [are you] doing? What is that?’ Just because I had added hi-hats to the sound. It made a big difference for the other drummers, because they never did it, until I tried it.”

When Allen composes, he starts with the drum line: everything springs from that. But  for contemporary highlife imitators, especially in the West, “This afrobeat everyone tries to do, they write the basslines and the horns … but what about the drums? The drummer comes and doesn’t know what to play, because that is the bit with the discipline. He will play what he knows, which doesn’t fit the music, ”  he says.

Allen has been consistent in his interviews about never going back in his music; moving on rather than revisiting the past. Afrobeat’s done; he’s explored classic jazz in his Tribute to Art Blakey, and other genres in work with collaborators as diverse as Damon Albarn, Zap Mama, Ernest Ranglin, and a fair number of dancefloor DJs.

But he has been more than happy to go back a full ten years to revisit that session with Masekela, because of the huge respect and affection he has for the trumpeter. You can hear why when you listen to the advance track from Rejoice out now, We’ve Landed.

AlbumAs he grew older and shook off the distractions of that sometimes reckless earlier life, Masekela simply got better and better as a player (he was always a compelling performer). Irrespective of what genre label his work carried, the technique and intelligence he applied to a tune soared. Duo sessions provided real space for that to shine, so you can hear it, for example, in his magisterial 2012 Friends with pianist Larry Willis. And you can hear it, beautifully, on We’ve Landed too. It’s going to be a long, hard wait for March 20 and the rest of the music.


Kaya Mahlangu at the Market: a giant legacy for jazzkind

When I talked to reedman and composer Khaya Mahlangu a decade ago – the first time in 40 years he had got his hands on a big-band, as director of the Gauteng Jazz Orchestra – he described it as “Like being a kid let loose in a roomful of toys – heaven!” (

Event poster

If that was merely heaven, last Friday night’s Jazz Giants Legacy Project at the Market Theatre must surely have approached Nirvana. There was Mahlangu directing an 18-piece ensemble; conducting and participating in arrangements of mostly his own works, filmed to create a future video and CD and transcriptions of scores for music learners. What’s more, the triumphant concert caps ten years during which Mahlangu has experienced family tragedy and, five years ago, a stroke that benched him from music for a while.

The Legacy project is helmed by the formidable Ike Phaahla and his organisation Creative Concepts, and funded by the National Lottery Fund. This year’s events (a concert the following night similarly showcased the music of Andile Yenana) were a delayed follow-up to similar events in 2014 for Feya Faku, and Marcus Wyatt and the ZAR Jazz Orchestra. When today’s jazz history in the making largely goes undocumented, and when if it isn’t web content, most people think it doesn’t exist, you can’t put a price on that kind of archival initiative.

Mahlangu was not the only artist showcased on Friday, and it’s inexplicable – and just plain wrong – that the advance publicity did not also herald the powerful, incandescent opening set to come from Thandi Ntuli and her sextet. Drawing from Exiled, Ntuli, with Mthunzi Mvubu on reeds,Sthembiso Bhengu on trumpet, Keenan Ahrends on guitar, Shane Cooper on bass Siphelelo Mazibuko on drums and Mamphumelelo Nhlapo on percussion conjured wounds “resurfacing more potent than before” and the pale “ghosts of our own apartheid…even within the safety of our own homes.” On her 2018 composition, Portal, (not yet recorded) her tribute to the cultural icons who died that year, she lifted the pain with a more upbeat, yearning lyricism.

Thandi Ntuli

Ntuli’s technical command of the keys grows on every outing – and it was already impressive on The Offering back in 2014. What was most striking from this set was how masterfully she now stretches across the full palette of sounds: embracing noise that speaks harshness and dissonance as well as upward-spiralling joy.

What was equally striking was how seamless for listeners the transition was between Ntuli’s sonic innovation and the classics of Mahlangu’s retrospective journey in the second set.

South African jazz has always had big, adventurous ears, and what Ntuli does continues, rather than departs from, that tradition. (There’s a literal family connection too: it was the musical patriarch of her family, Selby Ntuli, who recruited Mahlangu for his innovative Afro-soul outfit, Harari back in the mid-‘70s.)

download-1Now 66, Mahlangu’s history is very much the history of South African ‘modern’ jazz. He started as a Boy Scout bugler, then with youth bands and Harari, then a sax chair at the legendary Club Pelican , then – after studies – the Drive, the Jazz Ministers, Spirits Rejoice, Sakhile… We heard much of that in the programme, with dedications to Dick Khoza (who saved the young and not yet very competent saxophonist’s skin at the Pelican), to Gilbert Matthews and George Tyefumani of Spirits, to Feya Faku (whose steadfast encouragement helped Mahlangu regain his muscle memory after the stroke) and more.

There were also compositions from colleague Themba Mkhize and from the Jazz Fantasia of Gideon Nxumalo, whose opus the reedman has researched. The arrangements came from several of his colleagues in the big-band, including a tight, edgy polyphony of brass and reed voices from trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana on Mahlangu’s own Visions, and a lush, balladic version of Spirits Rejoice shaped by bassist Thembinkosi Mavimbela. South African jazz has a sonic language, a recognisable feel, for eulogies. Spirits Rejoice spoke it – but so, earlier, had Ntuli’s Portals.

The joys of having 18 instrumental colours to paint with came into their own on Mahlangu’s Mgiba and the closer, a sprightly piece of Witbank marabi. On those numbers in particular, a big, rude, blarty line of ‘bones led by veteran Dan Selsick, plus Mongezi Conjwa’s sprightly, Soul Brothers-style keyboards made us regret that the Market really isn’t a space you can dance in.

And what else did we learn from the evening?

  • That pop-up gigs in random venues are all very nice, but to really appreciate the music, nothing beats a space with decent acoustics, a real piano and comfortable stage space.
  • That ‘old’ music, innovatively arranged, tightly played and imaginatively improvised, always sounds fresh and beautiful.
  • That Mahlangu’s sax voice remains as warm and honeyed as ever. It’s still a sound to fall in love with – but, wait a minute, the man can also sing! He surprised many listeners with a sophisticated set of vocals on Some Kinda Blues, somewhere between Al Jarreau’s smoothness and Jon Hendricks’ syncopated scatting.
  • That there are a remarkable number of accomplished but less-known voices on the Joburg scene right now that, without a regular jazz stage, we hardly hear. Those included flugelhorn player Ndabo Zulu, and reedmen Simon Manana and Thabo Masilela – that second pulling out a big, impassioned attack reminiscent of Dudu Pukwana.
  • Oh, and that in probably the most cash-strapped weekend of the year, mid-Januworry, good jazz can still put a very respectable few hundred people into the John Kani auditorium.

Why should we have to wait for the July Jazz season for the Market to do this kind of thing again? Couldn’t we have it once a month?