Americanization of Ooga Booga

Hugh Masekela

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Americanization of Ooga Booga Review

by Bruce Eder

Getting Americanization of Ooga Booga released was evidently akin to pulling teeth, because MGM Records' president was convinced it would be a bomb -- what Hugh Masekela and his band had played at this early 1965 gig at the Village Gate was jazz, but it was too African-based for American tastes, or so the label chief maintained. What he missed was the infectious joy woven through every note of music here, which was enough to carry any kind of music from anyplace in the world over any unfamiliar patches, including the language, melodies, references to events, and places on the other side of the world; if this was to be New Yorkers' (and the recording world's) introduction to South African music, it was made incredibly genial and accessible, even from a jazz standpoint. The influence of Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard can be heard, along with McCoy Tyner in the playing of pianist Larry Willis, and he shows his debt to John Coltrane as an inspiration on "Mixolydia" as well as his affinity for Brazilian music on "Mas Que Nada." But the core sound was what Masekela called "township bop" -- his short trumpet bursts, sometimes seemingly approaching microtonal territory, are engrossing celebrations of the melodies of his repertory, which is mostly of South African origin (including a pair written by his then-wife, Miriam Makeba). Among the latter, the opening number, "Bajabula Bonke," aka "Healing Song," got its first airing on record here -- it would later receive a bolder performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, comprising one of that event's numerous musical highlights, but where that later performance streaked and soared, this one starts out slowly and quietly, exquisitely harmonized and rising gradually and gently like a glider catching rising winds; it's impossible to fully appreciate the Monterey performance without hearing this one. With Herbie Hancock's "Cantelope Island" providing one firm reference point in the American jazz idiom, the set really wasn't that removed from 1965 listeners, as its stronger-than-expected sales proved.