Hugh Masekela,
(Chissa/Heads Up, 2005)

In the liner notes to Hugh Masekela's album Revival, the South African musician talks about returning to his homeland after years in exile. He discusses both the vibrancy and the segmented nature of the music scene he discovered upon his return. And he proudly points out his own efforts to build bridges between musical factions by hiring a pair of young African producers from "the kwaito world" to work on this album. Kwaito is described as an African offshoot of American rap and hip-hop. "Revival is the result and for me, it turned out to be one of the most educational and enjoyable musical experiences of my life."

But listening to Revival, it's anything but obvious that Masekela has brought in vibrant new talent to invigorate and enliven his sound. Certainly the album's opening track fits quite neatly into the jazzy sound that one expects to hear. It's pleasant, with a unexceptional horn melody, accentuated by rather bland keyboards and laid-back guitar riffs. Nothing special.

On the second track Masekela trades vocal lines with Zwai Bala, one of the album's kwaito producers. And it's here that the stylistic mismatch that plagues Revival becomes more obvious. The song strives to be socially relevant and edgy but the lyrics are embarrassingly clumsy and the delivery is devoid of power or passion. "She fighting chauvinism, for woman's rights but she's a lover. She's always on the side of justice. She listen to Beethoven, to Fela, Miles and Ravi Shankar. Classical and jazz, afrobeat and Indian." The song goes on to list the sports this "Woman of the Sun" plays. It states that she holds a Ph.D. and knows how to dance the boogaloo. She's a list, not a person, and in the end the song comes off like an exaggerated and rather desperate personals ad instead of a celebration of an exceptional and desirable creature.

The album recovers briefly for the upbeat "District Six," which features a soulful lead vocal by Corlea. Her intensity points up all the weaknesses in most of Masekela's own singing. Here Masekela concentrates on his flugelhorn and delivers a wonderful, flowing solo that soars over an extended outro vocal line and quietly impressive guitar accompaniment.

"Open the Door" follows close on the heels of "District Six" and is another strong track with lead vocals by Malaika and a simple but stirring horn line. Perhaps the fact that the lyrics for both of these tracks are in a language I don't speak means that I'm missing any shortcomings in the writing. But the tail end of "Open the Door" is sung in English, by Masekela, with his gruff, imperfect voice juxtaposed against a more polished vocal collective and the result is terrific.

Unfortunately, from this point the album begins a slow slide back into mediocrity. "Nontsokolo" contains some intriguing harmonies, but not much else of interest. "Fresh Air" has an energetic, muted horn lead but the rest of the instrumentation is so decidedly lifeless that one wishes it could be put out of its misery. "Smoke," Masekela's lament on corporate indifference toward the ecological damage that fuels huge profits, is undermined by limp instrumentation.

Of the remaining tracks, only "Ibala Lam" is worth mentioning. It's a vocal ensemble piece with Masekela proclaiming proudly, "This brown color is a winner, is my shining armor." His horn playing is joyful and loose, his vocal passionately imperfect. The song closes with a spectacular a cappella segment and one is left wondering how this gem managed to avoid the misguided studio production treatment that sandblasted the edges off most of the songs on Revival.

It's hard to say where the problems with Revival originate. Were Zwai Bala and Godfrey "Guffy" Pilane too much in awe of Masekela to properly infuse his music with their youthful energy? Was Masekela less open to their ideas than his liner notes would have us believe? Whatever the cause, the result is an album that wants to be dangerous, that wants to break down barriers, that wants to inspire and uplift but which, with a couple of exceptions, succeeds only at being dull, safe and forgettable.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 3 September 2005

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