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Just Chillin'

2009-10-23 09:26
Hugh Masekela

But showy budgets don't always translate into hit albums, do they? So they probably thought better of the idea. Prudent Masekela knows better anyway, putting in for nothing more than one, lesser-known producer, Erik Paliani, who in turn brought no more than an engineer and a keyboard player on board.

And going over the record itself, you won't, in fact, spot any 'big name' arrangers or scores of studio personnel that could have been flown in from far-off lands. The studio credits suggest an album that, in fact, could have been anything but terrifically extravagant to make. Its producer,the Malawian-born Paliani was, to some extent anyway, the dark horse of likely producers.

"I loved what he did with Zamajobe and Mavo Solomon," he says. "I started this album with Jimmy Dludlu in Mozambique. Two tracks: "Hunger" and "Malungelo" we started and tracked in Mozambique. But we were both very busy and I realized that wouldn't be able to finish it there. So I brought those two tracks to Erik who normally won't work with tracks that other people have started. But he loved those two songs and he did wonders with them. No, three songs; [there was] also "Joke of life"....

"Erik Paliani came with Ezra (Erasmus) who's a keyboard man and Garick vander Tuin who's the engineer but is also a musician - he's an Afrikaaner boy...." explains Hugh over a glass of red wine when I track him down somewhere in Sandton. "The three of them worked as a team and their production style is very unique simply because they don't impose themselves. They try to grab from you what you've got.

"When I had the songs, Erik recorded them and then he went to make very minimal arrangements so I could come and re-perform them. And of course, as a producer, Erik came out very accessible. He's very sparse, but very effective - you feel everything. I was fascinated by that because normally producers are famous for what they bring of themselves to the things. But these guys tried to draw out of you - what you are and they tried to show that off. Which I think is a great approach - a realistic approach. I think that's what made Zamajobe great because it’s the same team, and they didn't crowd her."

Phola (slang for slow down, unwind, etc.) is his return to a major record comapny, having recently closed down his indie label Chissa. It's also caused him an awfully lot of good press, not least because it came along around the eve of his anticipated 70th birthday.

The way he plays, Masekela could have easily blown himself into exhaustion but for the first time the young Paliani was able to capture him without much of the usual hard slog routine. That's about the only change with his blowing routine but the record is, to a greater extent, somehow also the most serene of Hugh's career. "It was out of the prodding by Erik who said 'let's see how calm you can be on this one record'. And the one thing that he emphasised is that I shouldn't, like, push, I shouldn't scream, I shouldn't play too hard. It turned out to be an almost unplugged album."

Listening to the album, it's immediately apparent that the writing isn't as devoid of cyclical riffs and your typical SA jazz "call and response" cliches. Hugh's penchant for grooves is readily obvious. Take "Moz" – one of the preliminary singles which has already almost become a staple on South African adult contemporary charts.

"I think 'Moz' is kicking. It's simple and it's just me playing simply. I really followed Erik's advice there 'cause he said 'Just sing through the song' cause the rhythm is there," says the trumpeter about the tune. "The same feel is in 'The Weather'. It's just a very simple groove. That's the one thing that Erik’s good at. He gets the groove and he adds little things until it's dancing on its own and then it makes it easy for you to just sit on top of it and do whatever you want to do with it, you know."
So what's next for Bra Hugh? "The next album is gonna be a real dancer. We just gonna dance from South Africa to Congo, The Caribbean, Nigeria to Mozambique. We're gonna have all those grooves. It’s gonna be loud."
With Hugh Masekela pushing 70 his record company could have easily said "stuff the slump, budgets and such like - we go for broke with his next record!" And then get him bus loads of production personnel and VIP producers with as many calls as, say, the ANC Youth League.
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