In 1974, Hugh Masekela had already scored a chart-topping hit in the USA, where he’d been living in exile since the early 1960s. He was hanging out with jazz greats: John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Dizzie Gillepsie are names that pepper the pages of his biography Still Grazing – a nod to his Grammy-winning crossover hit ‘Grazin’ in the Grass’. He’d essentially ‘made it’ – he was living the American dream and no one could tell him otherwise. Suddenly, he found himself right in the middle of America’s high-brow society. With commercial success came the trappings of fame. He left a trail of bad decisions and broken promises, and these eventually caught up with him in the 70s. He was in need of an exit strategy, a remedy to the mounting distractions and dissatisfaction.
It was in the midst of this self-loathing that he walked to his piano and started playing the tune to what would straddle generations and continues to reverberate with music enthusiasts. ‘Stimela’, a staple in his live sets, appears as the last track on I Am Not Afraid. It was the impetus Hugh needed to wean himself off the trappings he’d grown to despise. Elsewhere on the album, every song demonstrates a stylistic leap in Masekela’s abilities, aided by his new backing band, Ghana’s Hedzoleh Sounds, who he’d met through his friend Fela Kuti. Congas set the tone on album opener ‘Night in Tunisia’. More percussive instruments follow – shakers, calabash, then a bassline groove and a crunchy, funky guitar lick. It’s a reworking of a Dizzy Gillepsie composition that infuses the original with refreshing ideas. ‘Been Such A Long Time’ is less psychedelic; more contained. Hugh’s raspy voice coasts atop Joe Sample’s piano. The result is a subtle tribute to his home, South Africa, a place he’d been absent from since leaving on a one-way ticket in the quest for creative and political freedom.
Masekela spent a considerable amount of time travelling and living in countries across Africa, from his palatial lifestyle in Liberia, to then-Zaire, where he was involved in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, the legendary stand-off between boxing greats Mohammed Ali and George Foreman. The result of these extended stays are songs that give accurate portraits of how people live across the continent – from women going about their duties (‘In the Market Place’) to insight into Liberian initiation rituals (‘African Secret Society’).
I Am Not Afraid is Masekela’s way of reclaiming his being, of charting new territory and not holding back. The album stands as a time-tested testament to the great things that result when artists push themselves to new heights.