As a teenager, Hugh Masekela was, famously, sent a trumpet by Louis Armstrong. Late in his career, he has adopted some of Armstrong’s mannerisms. He sings in a throaty rasp. He plays his trademark flügelhorn relatively little, and when he does he alternates between melancholy cracked phrases and busy, obsessive patterns. On Sunday night, he was working the crowd like an old showman, flirting with the twenty- something South Africans ululating in row B. “I know this is Oxfahd, but we’re not here for an education,” he chided in perfect Witbank Oxonian, before paying tribute to the city’s stance against Apartheid.
The last time the veteran South African trumpeter toured in Britain, he was invigoratingly backed by the Jazz Jamaica All-Stars, ska-obsessed young Turks who cannot hear a classic song without deconstructing and re-imagining it. This time, Masekela brought his own more comfortable South African band. At the start, they did a lot of the work, notably Ngenekhaya Mahlangu, who underpinned the leader on saxophone and with rich baritone vocals, and Abednigo Zulu on growling bass.
The music was familiar: “The Boy’s Doin’ It” and “Grazing in the Grass” slipped down smoothly. “Stimela”, a tribute to migrant workers, had become a marathon sound collage, Masekela wheezing and whistling like the steam train of the title, clanking a cowbell in imitation of wheels rattling over rails before abruptly hammering it like a pneumatic drill. “Ashiko”, an Afrobeat anthem by OJ Ekomode, led to an outbreak of clenched-fist salutes and choruses of “I love Africa”.
The evening closed with “Bring Back Nelson Mandela”, appropriate as a tribute to the passing generation of Struggle heroes, of which Masekela is another. But for an encore he went back to the start of his career with a piece of shebeen jive, “Khauleza”, remembering how as a child he would throw pebbles on to the tin roofs of his township to warn of approaching police. The audience echoed the chorus to the rafters.
Hugh Masekela plays St George’s, Bradford on May 17 and the Barbican, London on May 19.