Hugh Masekela’s Live in Lesotho is a great album of celebratory music intertwined with a beautiful story of homecomings of Miriam Makeba and himself. The region of southern Africa has deep meaning to me, so while I won’t go into super detail about the history of the record, I will talk about my relationship with Masekela and why his music is so important to me.
The year is 1993.
By the age of 13, I’d already amassed a hefty understanding of my people’s musical traditions and the complex history that cannot be ignored when talking about it. For me and my peers, Hip-Hop was at its pinnacle and every week brought about exciting new releases. One of these releases was a tune entitled “Attitudes” by a group named Rumpletilskinz. I can’t remember where I was when I first heard it, but the song immediately became a favorite and allowed me to better explain to others (then and now) the importance of aggression as an emotional outlet in our music. Comprised of four members, Capital LS, Geronimo, RPM, and Sha-now The Remedy Man, the group was an extension of the Leaders of the New School’s New School Society crew. “Attitudes” is one of the great songs of its time, delivering high-powered lyrics and an amazing beat from beginning to end. However, it is the main sample that brings this song to our current focus. Utilized from the jump, there is a deep bass and horn line from a composition called “Almost Seedless”. The song’s writer and performer was someone named Hugh Masekela. I’d never heard this name before, yet once I found a copy of his bestselling album The Promise of a Future (UNI, 1968), it began the bridging of a gap that I’d not known existed.
The year is 2018.
Early Spring brought on a new love affair with a beautiful woman living in Johannesburg. Born in Soweto, we’d met once through a mutual friend while she was studying at Temple University. After a few months of discussions, she’d invited me to come to stay with her. I’d not considered going to the region until then, yet the same week she invited me I’d also had a spiritual reading done by a local Babalawo and his lovely wife. The Iya read my cards and told me plenty about myself. One of these things was that “the ancestors wanted me to take a big trip across a large body of water.” Well, if the ancestors were reading into my life and telling me to go, then I had to go.
I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a few record collectors while in Jozi. It was good not only to learn about the musical scene (besides the luminaries I’d become familiar in the US), but also the ingrained racism that exists globally when it comes to the poaching, overpricing, royalty-less reissuing, renaming, and white-elite exclusivity to the sounds and expressions of Black people. I visited Rashid Valley’s shop, learned more about the As-Shams label (also known as The Sun. South Africa’s version of Strata-East if you will), and was schooled on the increasing obscurity of homegrown records due to European dealers coming into the country, buying up records for pennies (due to the exchange rate), flipping expensive copies, then repressing them. Often, as is the case in Black America, gentrifying forces take advantage of those who have been systematically impoverished. Possessions such as books and records are typically the first things to go.
Another thing taught to me by the brothers was the difficulty of finding releases by some of the region’s biggest stars; namely Abdullah Ibrahim, Letta Mbulu, Miriam Makeba, and Hugh Masekela. All of these artists recorded their most popular and successful records for American and European labels during the 1960s-1980s. I hardly saw any copies of South African pressings of records that are relatively common in the States, and with that, I learned about the effect Apartheid had on information transmissions and censorship in the country (not to mention my deepened understanding of what exile meant for these artists).
And now . . . the year is 1980.
Before my friend selector/writer/world traveler Atiyyah Khan posted on social media about the reissue of Live in Lesotho (originally 3rd Ear Music, 1980; reissued on Matsuli Music, 2019), I had never heard of the record (though to be fair many South Africans might not be familiar with it either). Presented to me as a political record, I was surprised when I dropped the needle. I foolishly was expecting something containing anthemic energy I could compare to other forms of Black Liberation Music coming from the Diaspora, but what ensued was audio from a beautiful gathering instead. From beginning to end, the record sounds like something my uncles would’ve put on during a get together in their homes during the year of my birth, and years after (the concert recording took place a few months after I was born). Besides the fact that it is a live recording, it is a very intimate and groovy time capsule. While Masekela performs a bunch of his past hits (admittedly none of them I knew minus “The Healing Song”), the record is a great example of jazz meets boogie meets post-disco meets slow jams meets Black holiday gathering or birthday party. Khan explains the tunes and tracklisting:
“Considering the musical background of all the musicians contributing, the result is a highly energetic, funk and groove-infused recapturing of some of Masekela’s favorite tunes to perform live. For this reissue the tracklisting has been restored to what is understood to be the original playlist, opening with a longer version of “Ashiko,” the hit penned by Nigerian saxophonist Orlando Julius Ekemode. This is followed by Caiphus Semenya’s “Ha Lese Le Di Khanna.” The haunting feeling of displacement is palpable in “Stimela,” echoing the plight of the region’s migrant workers. Another Semenya track, “Part Of A Whole” gets an upbeat reworking, with Hotep Galeta’s “Sister Fania” keeping the groove for near on twelve minutes. The album finishes with Makeba’s “The Healing Song (Bajabule Bonke).” (Khan, 2019)
While the record does feature lengthy solos by a few members of the band, it is the repetitive nature of the recordings that is the real treat. The horn section, the steady pulse of the drumming, and the call/response structure of most of the vocals give you a sense of what was popular on the continent (and everywhere) in 1980. Though again, the record is not one of expected protest music as much as it is a backdrop for a people unified under an oppressive regime (in itself a protest for members of the Diaspora). In this regard, Masekela’s music had not steered too far from its origins (at least from my perspective of his earlier albums).
I’m happy that this piece of history exists and has been presented in an expanded format (2 LP reissue vs. the single LP original) with liner notes by Ms. Khan herself. My biggest hope is that it is widely accessible to the community that gave birth to it. More global attention should be paid to the legacies of a people torn apart by Apartheid and not just to the fantastic music left in its wake. I strongly encourage everyone to read the lengthy notes on the record’s tale at:
Thank you to Atiyyah Khan, Dylan Valley, and Sifiso Khanyile.