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WORLD MUSIC REVIEW

Hugh Masekela melds rhythm with a message

August 04, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

It's been nearly 40 years since South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela had an unexpected breakout hit with "Grazin' in the Grass." Although it's an instrumental pop classic, he didn't get around to playing it until more than halfway through his program Thursday at the Skirball Center. But there were no complaints from the overflow audience swarming the front of the stage for his entire set, eager to respond to the irresistible, body-moving rhythms of his music.

Masekela, 68, is a powerfully charismatic entertainer, shrewdly aware of how to maintain the energy and momentum of an audience's response. Early in the program he performed "Stimela," his gripping tribute to exploited gold miners of South Africa. Providing his own atmospheric, vocalized sound effects of the trains hauling workers from surrounding countries, Masekela used the piece as a framework to reference the horrific contemporary situation in Darfur.

He then moved quickly into a lighter mode, dipping into the frothy rhythms of tunes such as "Happy Mama," "Market Place" and "Lady," enticing the initially hesitant crowd to flock into the aisles in an orgy of spontaneously choreographed dancing.

Playing fluegelhorn, Masekela displayed -- too briefly -- his convincing creative response to the early influence of Miles Davis. And his combined effectiveness as an instrumentalist and as a singer recalled the similar versatility of such legendary trumpeters as Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie. Like them, he blended accessible melodies, danceable rhythms and engaging vocalizing with inventive improvisational spontaneity -- often in the same piece.

When he performed "Mandela (Bring Him Back Home)," yet another aspect of Masekela's unique creativity emerged -- his role as one of the principal voices in the struggle for South African liberation.

It was a fitting climax for a program revealing the complexities and the longevity of one of the world's most fascinatingly eclectic musical figures.

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