How Bra Hugh's band plan to keep his spirit alive at the 2019 Heritage Festival
Hugh Masekela's band and vocalist Thandiswa Mazwai prepare to celebrate the late icon's music and put their spin on some classics
In the bowels of what used to be the Bassline in Newtown, Johannesburg, the strains of a familiar song emanate from a room somewhere down the corridor. As they get louder you can make out the familiar chorus of Fela Kuti's Lady - "If you call am woman, African woman no agree, She go say, she go say, 'I be lady oh' " - but, unlike the original, the words here are being sung by a woman.
Through a final door and the voice is revealed to be that of Thandiswa Mazwai, sitting on a chair, beginning her rehearsal with the Hugh Masekela Band ahead of their headline performance at this year's Hugh Masekela Heritage Festival next weekend.
Masekela recorded Lady in tribute to Kuti, his longtime friend, legendary Afrobeat pioneer and fellow mischief-maker. Kuti died in 1997 and Masekela would continue to perform at gigs around the world until shortly before his own death in January last year.
Mazwai and the band begin to loosen up and move into their next number - the opening track from 1973's seminal Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz, recorded by Masekela and the Ghanaian group of the title - a psychedelic Afrobeat-jazz-funk-fusion masterpiece that many acolytes of Masekela's 50-year recording career consider the high-watermark of his career.
Languta, the album's opening track, remained a staple of Masekela's performances for over 40 years and is still a firm favourite with audiences.
While these are only two of the songs the band is practising ahead of their performance, they represent Masekela's lifelong interest in a variety of music styles and his ability to reinterpret them in his own unique manner which combined his formative South African influences with the plethora of sounds and styles he was exposed to over many years in exile.
Says his nephew Mabusha Masekela: "Everybody keeps calling him a jazz musician but he's really a folk musician who plays the trumpet."
This year will mark the fifth iteration of the festival and while its namesake will not be there, his musical legacy and social interests will be well served by a lineup that includes performances by local stalwarts such as Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse and Madala Kunene and the newer sounds of artists like Bombshelter Beast, Thabang Tabane and Sun Xa Experiment.
Mazwai first met Masekela when she was a teenager singing in her school choir. She would later sneak into his gigs and eventually perform with him at various gigs around the world.
The task of representing the music and spirit of the legend is, says Mazwai, "really daunting, because it's this music that people love very, very, very dearly".
"People love this music and there's a way they love to hear it, and so I'm taking the brave step of changing some keys, changing some arrangements and making it fit into how I would like to celebrate Bra Hugh's music ... with his band of course," she says.
The task of representing the music is really daunting, because it's this music that people love very, very, very dearlyThandiswa Mazwai
The members of Masekela's band who played with him for over a decade before his death say Mazwai has "a spirit and an energy that embodies what Bra Hugh was all about".
"It sends shivers down the spine when I hear her," says drummer Leeroy Sauls.
The band have performed several times locally and internationally since Masekela's death and during this year that would have marked his 80th birthday, but the Heritage Festival holds a special place in their hearts and is important as a means of fulfilling one of the artist's last wishes.
Guitarist Cameron Ward recalls: "I went to visit him in hospital and he said, listen, you guys are responsible for spreading my music when I'm gone and representing me and South Africa to the world."
Mazwai says next week's show "is about celebrating all that Bra Hugh represented" and when the audience "get the feeling that you should dance, you should, and when we cool it down don't be stressed. We'll be putting our energy into it and the audience should feel free to give it back."
• The Hugh Masekela Heritage Festival takes place at The Soweto Theatre on Saturday, November 9. Doors open at noon. Tickets from xtixs.com