Tuesday, January 23, 2018

All souls seek joy — Hugh Masekela (RIP) at the Barbican in 2009


A couple of days ago I posted here a recommendation of Mike Davis's most recent book on urban poverty, Planet of Slums. My chum John Boyle subsequently responded, alerting me to one or two interesting critiques of Davis's book which drew attention to the unrelievedly apocalyptic tenor of Davis's particular brand of Marxist-orientated urban geography.

Africa, needless to say, loomed large in Davis's dark chronicle, reinforcing the book's dominant mood of impending doom and gloom. So where do we turn for a glimmer of hope? Well, to Africa, paradoxically.

This evening I witnessed one of the more unlikely collaborations in contemporary music when the Barbican's resident band — the London Symphony Orchestra — teamed up with South African trumpet legend Hugh Masekela.

I have to admit to a certain trepidation en route to this gig. Along with Salif Keita, Hugh Masekela has given me some of my most joyous live music experiences. On top of a mellifluous tone and flawless technique, he's invariably backed by a rhythm section of such tropical intensity that by the end of the gig most of the audience has joined them on stage to boogie on down with frenetic abandon. Last time I saw him he ripped the lid off the Festival Hall.

So what would he be like with the London Symphony Orchestra?

With the help of the talented young British composer Jason Yarde (whose specially-commissioned composition 'All Souls Seek Joy' was a highlight of the evening), they moved through innovative but restrained arrangements of many of Masekela's most celebrated songs — Grazing in the Grass, Thula-Thula, Nomathemba, Mandela (Bring Him Back Home), and Stimela, in which Masekela mimics the sound of the 'coal train' taking black migrant workers from their homelands to the misery of the South African mines.

And there's the tenuous link with Mike Davis. Masekela dedicated this one-off orchestral project to the thousands of South African migrant workers who have been forced to leave their rural homelands and head for the cities to earn a meagre living working for rapacious industrial conglomerates of one sort or another.

But for all the adventurousness of the Barbican programmers (and clearly Masekela himself was deeply moved by the experience of working with the LSO and the St. Luke's Community Choir), one sensed that a conventional orchestra was not quite the right vehicle for Masekela's music.

His flugelhorn lacked its usual declamatory punch, while the orchestra's rhythm section was positively pedestrian. I mean, this is township jazz, for Chrissakes. Why split the drum-kit between four white guys? I could almost hear them backstage beforehand: "Here you go, Dave, you play the hi-hat; I'll do the bass drum; Steve, you shake these things, and Bob, can you tap this snare thingy in time with the beat?" They were all over the place. Why not just stick a drummer in the traps and kick some ass?

And why were there so few black faces in the orchestra (i.e. none)?

As for the choir, despite their manifest joy at being part of such a worthy event, one sensed this needed a belting, big-bosomed gospel choir rather than a predominantly white middle-class ensemble of Daphnes and Dereks from Deptford (I counted three black faces out of a choir of 94.) (But then see Kevin Le Gendre's recent piece for the Guardian on this topic here.

Am I being too critical? Perhaps. The Barbican series to which the concert belonged was entitled 'Belief'. I guess in the context of the misery Mike Davis outlines, one has to hang on to something.

(How strangely coincidental that on returning home I should log on to John's website to find a link to an item about Hugh Masekela and Michael Pennington discussing Improvisation). Enjoy.


fiona said...

As a member of the LSO Community choir, I take umbrage with your viewpoints. Why should Hugh sing and play only with black choirs and black musicians? Perhaps you've missed the point that this concert was supposed to transcend race. And for the record, the choir's membership is as ethnically diverse as you would expect a community choir located in east London to be. But then that wouldn't fit with your comfortably narrow arguments, would it?

Tom Flynn said...

Thanks for the comment, Fiona. I'm not arguing that Hugh Masekela should only be playing with black musicians and a more careful reading of my post will confirm that this was never my suggestion. I'm merely bemoaning that, Jason Yarde's and Julian Joseph's successes in this area notwithstanding, so few black musicians are working within the formal structures of conventional classical music, as evidenced by Wednesday's performance. This is a position echoed by LSO MD Kathryn McDowell here. I didn't pull any punches, I grant you, but this is a blog, not a daily newspaper. On a musical note, incidentally, the St. Luke's choir performed superbly at the Barbican this week and I hugely enjoyed the collaboration, for which I congratulate you and your colleagues.