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Hugh Masekela melds S. Africa, jazz in cathartic Hub show

Susan Saccoccia | 4/30/2013, 7:37 a.m.
South African musician Hugh Masekela and his five-member ensemble delighted a crowd at the Berklee Performance Center on Sunday. Mark Shoul

Masekela explored the visual and verbal pleasures of a Fela Kuti song, “Lady,” a song of praise to modern women in Nigerian pidgin, a slang version of English. While singing, he moved to the song’s easygoing rhythmic pace and mimicked the stride of a proud woman.

No stranger to the poetry of the English language, Masekela conjured an encounter with a lovely woman at a vegetable stall with his song, “Market Place.” “I won’t forget the day when the sun came shining,” he sang, describing a woman “floating through the market like a butterfly” with “corn-row hair in a million braids.”  

Masekela performed his epic song “Stimela,” which renders the plight of his country’s conscripted mine workers by portraying the train that brings them to towns where they work “16 hours a day for almost no pay.” He punctuated the somber lyrics with the sounds of a train’s whistle, belching steam and chugging engine.  

After immersing the audience in his infectious musical world, Masekela spoke directly of Boston’s tragic events. He expressed his condolences to the friends and families of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. He asked us to also remember “all those people all over the world who lose their lives from human violence and terrorism and natural disasters.”

Eventually, he moved into blockbuster hits, including his 1968 instrumental “Grazing in the Grass.” Keyboardist Skippers navigated its lilting melody with a gorgeous contemplative solo in the style of Keith Jarrett.

Noting with pride that South Africa is celebrating its 19th anniversary as a non-racial democracy, Masekela introduced “Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela),” his anthem to the young nation’s first president. Masekela wrote the song in 1986, four years before Mandela was released from prison. Mandela memorably danced to the song in June 1990, before an audience of 220,000 at a concert in his honor along the Esplanade.

Masekela concluded his joyful concert with an encore and then departed with a final ululating cry.