Celebrating the lost past with Masekela and Allen

Rejoice, a long dormant collaborative album between Hugh Masekela and Tony Allen, was released just before Allen’s recent death. It’s a reminder of how much the artists mean to so many.

Tony Allen’s drumsticks count in and then the song explodes into life, with a powerful acoustic funk bassline from The Invisible’s Tom Herbet. Hugh Masekela is all over Allen and Herbet’s groove, with a slight blues-tone to his light and airy melody, perfectly accentuated by keys from Joe Armon-Jones.

Allen’s drums and Masekela’s trumpet were recorded in 2010, while Herbet’s bassline and Armon-Jones’ keys were recorded in 2019. It is not a detail you can pick up from the music, now fully merged as one.

Jabulani (Rejoice, Here Comes Tony) is a song that says much about the release of this rather unexpected collaboration between Allen and Masekela, which has lain dormant for almost a decade, on an album that Allen described as a “South African-Nigerian swing-jazz stew”.

Rejoice is an album to celebrate and treasure, not only because it presents two African legends united in musical vision, but because it goes beyond doing just that. It allows us to hear Tony Allen and Hugh Masekela in surprising new ways. It compels the listener to hear with fresh ears.

Decades in the making

In a World Circuit Records video published to promote the album, Allen said he first met Masekela in Nigeria in the 1970s and the two had shared numerous stages together over the years. Despite an ever-ongoing conversation about one day recording together, the recording dates never seemed to materialise. That was until 2010, when Allen told World Circuit Records producer Nick Gold that he had always wanted to record with Masekela.

Gold, who knew Masekela from previous recording dates, contacted the South African trumpeter and two days were booked in London’s Livingston Studios. 

The two arrived with no new compositions, but in two days they had written and recorded basic tracks for an album’s worth of songs. Allen laid down his drum parts and Masekela worked out the compositions’ melodic structures on trumpet and flugelhorn.

 Then work ceased and the collaboration gathered dust for eight years.

For Allen, the recording session for Rejoice, in 2010, came right in the middle of a purple patch for the drummer.

In 2009, Allen was involved in two stellar records: the first was his own Secret Agent released on World Circuit, and the second a collaboration with Jimi Tenor in the fourth volume of Strut Records’ Inspiration Information series. Both were spectacular albums. And Rejoice, on account of Allen’s drumming in it, feels profoundly interrelated to them.

Masekela’s last album, before the sessions for Rejoice, had been 2008’s laid-back fusion record Phola, which placed a lot of focus on his singing. The Hugh Masekela that the listener encounters in Rejoice is a world apart from the one heard in Phola.

Back from the past

For whatever reasons, the initial recording sessions for Rejoice did little but gather dust for almost a decade. Then Masekela passed away in January 2018 and Allen immediately thought of this long lost album he had begun recording with his friend.

In 2019, with the Masekela family’s permission, he decided to go back into the Livingstone Studio once again with Nick Gold. Joining them this time were Steve Williamson on tenor sax, Lewis Wright on vibraphone, Joe Armon-Jones on keyboards, Lekan Babalola on percussion and bassists Tom Herbet and Mutale Chashi.

These six musicians bring a wealth of musicality to the act of bringing these compositions to life, but when you listen to an echo-drenched afrobeat song like Obama Shuffle Strut Blues, you realise at the heart of Rejoice is a fascinating conversation between Allen and Masekela, one that includes the languages of jazz, funk, afrobeat and township jazz.

On the groove monster Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be the Same), Allen and Masekela pay homage to Fela Kuti. Allen told Jazz Times, “When Hugh and I were recording this song, Hugh immediately wanted to sing.”

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“He was singing for his friend,” said Allen. “He and Fela were close, they had a lot in common, it was a friendship even more than a musical thing, and yes, of course, they were both political animals.”

While the groove on Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be the Same) is very afrobeat with great keys work from Armon-Jones, Masekela’s horn playing is atypical of the genre, flying over the top like a soaring bird, instead of getting down and dirty with the groove.

On Slow Bones, Masekela does it again, riding the deep afrobeat groove, this time playing more typical horn melodies for the genre, but once again they’re above the groove, not in it.

Masekela’s tone is so crisp and clear you cannot escape it, it is a revelation.

Another loss

Allen died less than two months after the release of Rejoice, making the album his last official release. If he had not returned to Livingstone Studios in 2019, it may have gathered dust for many more years. As we mourn another African music legend, it is fortunate that he saved it from that fate.

In hindsight, the jazz influence on Allen’s drumming on this album acts as a pointer to his hybrid of Afrobeat and jazz, which can be heard on the EP A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and the album The Source, both from 2017.

For Masekela fans, Rejoice provides a new piece of the puzzle in deciphering the spectacular career of one of South Africa’s greats. 

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Just over a year after working in London with Allen, Masekela would begin one of two fortnight-long recording sessions with longtime musical comrade Larry Willis. The resulting four-disc, 39-track album, Friends, was the first released on Masekela’s House of Masekela record label, in 2012.

To this critic’s ear, the album offered up some of the most lyrical and expressive horn work the South African legend had laid to record in the recent past. Now, eight years after the release of Friends, we get to hear Masekela in 2010 laying down Rejoice. What this belatedly released album suggests is that Masekela’s new lyrical approach to his trumpet was already in development in early 2010.

Masekela owns the songs on this album. Not with sheer force and showmanship, of which he has plenty, but with the intensity of his horn work. Rejoice is more than a notable collaboration, it is a classic album that reminds us again why these two musicians mean so much to so many of us.

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