Hugh Masakela's recordings in his golden years have been much more rooted in his South African heritage than the commercialized music he played in his younger days. Thankfully, that trend continues with this very fine effort that has him playing his own original material, his storied silver flugelhorn with all the effusive joy his homeland can now proclaim, and singing on every selection, telling tales of renewal, resurrection, and revived positivity. Teamed with bassist, guitarist, and producer Erik Paliani, Masakela is strutting through the villages of Capetown and Johannesburg like a pied piper, spreading the word of his convictions, and what the title Phola represents, a force for change through healing. There's substantial brass work from Masakela here, as well as R&B, and even electronics as heard on the opener, Paliani's "Mwanayu Wakula," a light township dance jam from 6/8 time to funk fusion with group vocal chants. Masakela penned the tribute piece, "Ghana," which is a straight kwela dance emphasizing his vocals over instrumentals, as well as the freedom song for the people "Bring It Back Home" where his singing is grittier à la Harry Belafonte. "Moz" jumps out a bit with its unison horn melody alongside clarinetist Stewart Levine strutting and swaying, while "Sonnyboy" is the story of a young man's attempt at piano lessons, asking that the teacher needs to "set him free, let him fly away." Most of these pieces are sung by the leader in English, a bit strained during "Weather," but in African dialect for "Hunger," where he also plays the most lead flugelhorn. The band does Jon Lucien's "The Joke of Life" with the light Fender Rhodes electric piano of Arthur Tshabalala among five percussionists in a commercial vein, but not overtly. Every grouping is different per track, the pacing of the program is even and never jarring, and there's a sense of purpose that prevails throughout. In the decade of the 2000s, Hugh Masakela has come into his own more than at any other time in his long career, and Phola is a shining example that he's still in his prime, making excellent music with no turning back.
by Michael G. Nastos