Essentials: Hugh Masekela & Tony Allen’s ‘Rejoice’ is a celebration of African music’s innovative spirit

A delightful collaboration between two of the most talented African artists to walk the face of the earth

In just three months of this disorienting year, African music has lost three of its most influential legends. In February, South African singer/bandleader Joseph Shabalala and Nigerian trumpeter and highlife singer Victor Olaiya both passed away within 24-hours of each other, and just last week, we lost Cameroonian saxophonist and genre-bending musician Manu Dibango to the novel Coronavirus. While their careers and the progress they made during their time serves a bit of  a consolation that these artists lived long and impactful lives, it’s still a huge loss.

This is why ‘Rejoice’, the newly released joint album by Hugh Masekela and Tony Allen, is a much needed gift amidst the losses. Recorded during a series of sessions in 2010, ‘Rejoice’ is the delightful result from the purposeful collaboration between two of the most talented and innovative African artists ever. Across the album’s eight tracks, Masekela and Allen find common ground in their virtuosic powers, putting together a loose and joyful body of work that slips and slides between Afrobeat and Jazz.

On several occasions, Tony Allen has stated that his stick work is largely influenced by Art Blakey and Max Roach, both pioneering greats of Jazz subgenre, Bebop. He’s always pointed out t he’s always pointed out that he’s an Afrobeat drummer, and his take on Jazz is refracted through that prism.

‘Rejoice’ is a prime showcase of this ethos, and the 2010 recording serves as precedent for his similarly Jazz-inflected 2017 projects, ‘A Tribute to Art Blakey (EP)’ and ‘The Source’. For this project though, he delivers barely adorned, yet, always spectacular drum patterns that tick and pop in unique Tony Allen fashion.

With Allen’s drumming and additional bass riffs serving as the spine, Hugh Masekela’s horns and occasional singing, form the heart of the songs. Equally intense and deft, Masekela’s abilities lends itself a wide expressive range, jumping between vivacious, sullen and everything in between without breaking a sweat. On ‘Rejoice’, he leans closer to the livelier side of the spectrum, imbuing his horn solos with uplifting radiant scats and syncopated runs, even when he’s not being upbeat. His voice also carries a similar effect when he sings, communicating vigour and joy through his wisened tone and full-throated chants.

On “Never (Lagos Never Gonna be the same without Fela)”, they pay their reverence to previous collaborator and fellow African legend, Fela Kuti, with a composition that veers the furthest into Afrobeat territory. Tony Allen’s funky groove, revving bass guitar riff and additional local percussion, drive the song’s big band Jazz-inflected setting. “Lagos never gonna be the same, never without Fela”, Masekela reverently offers in honour of Fela, using his conversational horn solos as a response to the call of his sung lyrics.

If you’re into that type of stuff, ‘Rejoice’ is packed with moments you can geek about, from Tony Allen’s vivid drumming and Masekela’s improvised and intimate motifs, to the elegantly uncluttered arrangements. But the triumph here is, technical precision works in service of a highly enjoyable, sometimes outrightly visceral, album. Of course, for a duo that reshaped African music in their own ways, an album of this calibre is generally expected, but it is no less of a masterwork, one that was clearly anchored by a mutual respect in craftsmanship (“Jabulani (Rejoice, Here Comes Tony)”) between both artists.

In January 2018, Hugh Masekela passed away at age 78, and ‘Rejoice’ is an excellent first posthumous album that adds a bit more gloss to the royal status he earned through hundreds of albums and evergreen hit songs. Tony Allen, currently 79, is still pushing his musical boundaries in his solo work and through joint endeavours, like the 2018 EP with Techno DJ Jeff Mills, ‘Tomorrow Comes the Harvest’, and his integral involvement in Rock supergroup, the Good, the Bad & the Queen. That we got a joint album from these two is something we shouldn’t be taking for granted.

‘Rejoice’ presents two artists celebrating each other in the period of impulsive innovation that birthed a class of pioneering artists. It’s a reminder that we need to cherish those from that era who are still with us, and continue to sing the praises of those who have passed on.

Listen to ‘Rejoice’ here.

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Dennis is not an interesting person. Tweet Your Favourite Playboi Carti Songs at him @dennisadepeter