Review by Thom Jurek
Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine met in 1961 at the Manhattan School of Music. They became friends, roommates, and collaborators. They began experimenting with putting together groups of African singers, studio musicians, and a fusion of South African township jive and urban gospel. The two started the CHISA label together in 1966 just before the pair scored big with Masekela’s smash, “Grazin’ in the Grass.” After the success of that track, they put more money into their label, and scored a distribution deal with Motown. The 14 sides here, on Chisa Years: 1965-1975 (Rare and Unreleased) are little known or forgotten tracks from the CHISA years. It’s true that the Crusaders recorded for CHISA in this period, but there are no tracks by them on this set — though most of the band appear here in one form or another. None of Masekela’s hits are here either. And it’s just as well. What is collected on this disc is a vibrant slew of cuts recorded by the pair. First there’s the smoking “Afro Beat Blues,” by Masekela and his band Ojah, who hailed from places like Nigeria and Ghana, that had been recruited during a successful African tour in 1973. The players had been introduced by Fela Kuti in Lagos. Other cuts here include the stunning “Mahalela,” “U Se Mcani,” “Macongo,” and “Melodi (Sounds of Home),” by Letta Mbulu. These are unreleased cuts from her debut and second albums from 1970 and ’73, respectively. The band includes four members of the Crusaders, Arthur Adams, Wayne West, Masekela, and Francisco Aguabella on percussion. The latter track is one of the most joyous and successful attempts to pull together the world of soul and township jive ever. Elsewhere, on “Amo Sakesa” by Baranta (featuring the great vocalist Miatta Fahnbulleh) funk grooves meet the music of the Soweto street in glorious aplomb. The four selections by Baranta are the most adventurous on the set. (Check the fuzz guitar, Nigerian funk bass line, and staggered drum breaks in “Ahvuomo.”) There are three tracks here by the Zulus. All of these register from the earliest sessions. This group included Mbulu as well as Caiphus Semenya, and contained seven vocalists as well as a rhythm section. Dig the hard-driving hand drum grooves in “Za Labalaba.” The polish and sophistication of the sounds in this song are literally astonishing, and prove a perfect, seamless meeting of American gospel and South African street music, but a close second is “Aredze,” with breezy Les Paul-styled guitar by Bruce Langhorn. The gospel piano in “Awe Mfana,” by the Johannesburg Street Band sidles up magnificently to the horns played by Masekela, the Crusaders’ Wilton Felder, and Wayne Henderson, and Al Abreus with tight Steve Cropper-styled guitar by Arthur Adams. In sum, there isn’t a weak moment on this entire collection. It’s appeal is wide and deep and one can only hope this is the first of many volumes of this material to appear. BBE Records has done a stellar job in making this slab available.