Old friends Masekela and Willi

Old friends Masekela and Willis open London Jazz Festival in remarkable form

South Africa’s Hugh Masekela and America’s Larry Willis treated London jazz lovers to pieces from their recent album as well as fascinating anecdotes about music greats like Satchmo and Miriam Makeba.

Old friends Masekela and Willi

Hugh Masekela & Larry Willis perform at Royal Festival Hall - 15/11/13Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis wowed the  packed out audience at The Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, on Friday 15 November with a collection of songs from their 2012 album entitled Friends and other jazz classics as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, supported by musician/performance poet and writer Zena Edwards.

Willis met Masekela while the South African was in exile, studying in New York. He happened to spot Willis playing for the university band and the two have been friends ever since. Masekela attributed his American style jazz technique to Willis, who took it quite humbly, smiled, nodded and turned to the piano.

The pair started the set with their beautifully fresh rendition of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Cantaloupe Island’ and continued to cover the greats such as Louis Armstrong, Miriam Makeba, Charlie Parker and Tom Bell.

Before each song Masekela would share a story relating to the artist whose song they were covering, and each was a gold nugget of history not generally known to the public, like for instance the fact that Louis Armstrong would bring back sweets and treats to the kids in New York when he came back from doing shows out of town. Masekela also relayed stories from the ’60s when he and Willis would go from club to club, jamming all day, to riding through New York to catch Thelonius Monk and Joe Henderson play.

The rich history of their influence really shone through each note on the piano and trumpet as the duo paid homage to their favourite artists. Their skill, musicality, passion and precise delivery was easily picked up even by a novice such as me. I’ve previously seen Hugh Masekela in concert, but never like this.

Hugh Masekela & Larry Willis perform at Royal Festival Hall - 15/11/13He’s an icon and national hero in South Africa and always known for his African style of jazz, fuelled with rhythm, soul and that je ne sais quoi that comes from his African roots, but that night, he and Larry displayed a catalogue of diverse jazz that had everyone engaged and wanting more however; they did end their set with Miriam Makeba’s ‘Bajabula bonke mangi lele phantsi’ leaving the audience on a high note in true African form.

I was thoroughly surprised by the anecdotes he threw in about Makeba; how she (and Harry Belafonte, the Calypso King) had advised him to not lose sight of his heritage in his music; as well as sacrificing a lucrative singing career in the 1970s to address the UN about the plight of apartheid in South Africa at the time, or the fact that the late great Mama Africa came from a family that had a rich history of tribal psalms that inspired her many songs.

It was an educational evening for many, especially me, as I got a small glimpse into the lives of jazz artists I grew up hearing in the background as well as those on my iTunes playlist.

The concert kicked off the EFG London Jazz Festival, the city’s largest musical festival of its kind, showcasing a vast amount of talent from various background genres and countries, which continues until Sunday 24 November.

Words by Noma Pele

Photos by Andy Sheppard