By BRUCE DENNILL
A Celebration Of Bra Hugh Masekela / Directed by Makhaola Ndebele / The Mandela, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg 8
There is no reasonable argument against the staging of a musical tribute to the late Hugh Masekela, one of the most well-known and influential musicians in South Africa’s history. The concern for many audience members in such a situation, though, is that such an event would be so laden with hop-on-the-bandwagon worthiness by association – tedious speeches brimming with hyperbole and dubious self-indulgent back-slapping – that Masekela’s gifts as a flugelhorn and trumpet player, songwriter, musical director and musical activist would end up being largely lost beneath the political grandstanding.
The creative team here did well to avoid any of that potential aggravation by confounding expectations in a number of clever, pleasing ways. It would be been reasonable to present a chronological set of Masekela’s biggest hits, or grouped songs together according to theme or something similar.
Instead, the running order here included a number of set-pieces from theatrical productions in which Masekela had been involved in a role other than than “star”, with a quartet of well-known compositions (including Stimela) book-ending each of those segments. So there were six songs from Gone Native – The Life And Times Of Regina Brooks, for which Masekela served as musical director; seven tunes from Songs Of Migration, which he created; and six songs from Sarafina, for which he collaborated in the musical development stage.
This format allowed the talented casts of those three notably different projects to to perform, allowing for musical perspectives other than just solely Masekela’s to be woven into the soundtrack for the evening, and for choreography and some fantastic singing to keep the dynamic flow of the evening going strong throughout.
A couple of technical issues and the relatively affected styling of the music in the first part of the first act (the Gone Native segment) meant that the show began well, but was not particularly compelling. However, when Ntsika Ngxanga (perhaps better known for his work in a capella band The Soil) took centre stage for a solo, the tone of the evening changed. Ngxanga is blessed with a magnificently pure voice, but it was his stagecraft – his ability to, in just three or four minutes, have everyone in the theatre eating out of his hand – that both brought the crowd together and set the bar for every other performer.
He was nearly matched by the consistent excellence of the members of a capella quartet Complete – Happy Motha, Bonginkosi Motha, Mluleki Chuma and Bubele Mgele – who formed part of the Songs Of Migration ensemble and had one number to themselves.
The closing segment saw the cast of Sarafina amaze with their combination of athleticism and artistry; wonderful music brilliantly performed, but also supremely tight, non-stop choreography, delivered without a hitch.
All of this vocal and physical ability relied on the platform provided by the production’s band, on stage and playing for the entire running time. Many of these experienced musicians had spent years playing with Masekela and retained their chemistry with the music and its nuances, but they are such accomplished musicians that they could make anything sound sublime. Arguably the greatest burden on any performer on the night lay on the shoulders of flugelhorn and trumpet player Sydney Mavundla, the obvious stand-in, even if only symbolically, for Bra Hugh. Mavundla’s response was impeccable – effortlessly world-class playing, showing off a range of shade, tone and phrasing that would be the envy of any other artist playing his instruments. And the rest of the musicians – laid-back bassist Fana Zulu; cheerful percussionist Godfrey Mgcina; versatile keys player Johan Mthethwa (also the musical director for the production); saxophonist Kaya Mhlangu; smooth guitarist Ntokozo Zulu; funky trombonist Bez Roberts; and permanently spot-on drummer Lee-Ropy Sauls – are equally impressive.
There were moments when projections came up and disappeared, obviously having been mistimed, and a couple of other minor glitches distracted momentarily. But the overwhelming impression left at the end of this show was that creativity, artistry and passion – all facets of Masekela’s personality – had been properly celebrated, ensuring that the piece’s title was accurate, and that Bra Hugh’s considerable legacy was given the respect it deserved in a way he no doubt would have enjoyed.