A distinct characteristic of music enthusiasts is their ability to pinpoint precise categories that frame their likes and dislikes. Meaning: The average nuts will tell you which artist they like, as well as which albums, from which era and on which label. As you can imagine, the specificity illustrates much about the listeners’ tastes and what exactly they like. Fans are a fickle bunch, after all.
So, from the standpoint of both the record label and the consumer, it makes sense that a company will diversify its portfolio … only to a degree. Should a label veer wildly with its signings and releases, it risks making the members of its support-base nervous and unsure about forking over their bread. Subsequently, it makes sense that labels also love a “reliable” artist as opposed to the ever-changing, unpredictable one.
Guess Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine never stood a chance of enjoying the music business.
When South African trumpeter Masekela and producer Levine decided to start a record label in the mid-’60s, they envisioned a new style of music based on the sounds of Western metropolises and African townships. Over the next ten years, the resulting Chisa Records proceeded to record a range of artists (from the graceful singer Letta M’Bulu to the all-star Crusaders) across the world (from Los Angeles to Lagos) in an indefinable set of styles. And during those ten years the label experienced both tremendous success through the Crusaders and considerable difficulty by constantly seeking a new distributor. Though the label’s life seemed destined to be finite, it also left behind a remarkable and defining recorded legacy. Hugh Masekela Presents: The Chisa Years… 1965-1975 is one of the first proper attempts to document this label’s finest work.
The compilation focuses on Masekela’s original idea of “African American Music.” From the early experiments of the Zulus (a group featuring M’Bulu) in mixing doo-wop, rhythm & blues and South African gospel and the mbaqanga/”Grazing in the Grass”-style work of the generically named Johannesburg Street Band to the clearly Fela-influenced Ojah (Masekela’s band in the mid-’70s, consisting of players from Ghana and Nigeria) and the ready-for-primetime belting of M’Bulu, each track reveals a multi-pronged effort to find and challenge the notion(s) of how African and American cultural forms could interact. Subsequently, a track such as “A Cheeka Laka Laka” — an elegant song recorded in English and dialect by Sierra Leonean percussionist Francis Fuster’s group Baranta, featuring vocalist Miatta Fahinbulleh, in Nigeria — becomes par for course.
For obvious logistic reasons, few labels have since matched the scope of Chisa. Nonesuch chronicles ethnic music around the world, but it remains committed to tradition. Peter Gabriel’s Real World made in-roads through the ’90s to bridge folk forms with the contemporary, but it has become more renowned for its recording facilities than for creative direction. And though a considerable portion of Chisa’s history has yet to be documented — where oh where are those Peter Fonda and Yaphet Kotto 45s? — Hugh Masekela Presents: The Chisa Years… 1965-1975 offers a promising start.
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