“grazing in the grass” – hugh masekela (1968)

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Today is the spring equinox, colloquially known as the first day of spring, in this part of the world.  Though our calendar officially recognizes the seasonal change, it sure doesn’t feel like it in Chicago.  Currently, it is hovering around freezing and expected to snow later in the week.  To call this spring, especially after such long winters in Chicago, it can be seen as some cruel joke for some, but I don’t mind it.  Spring will come.

March can be such a strange month for weather.  One day, it can be bright, sunny, and warm enough to leave the jacket at home.  The next day, you’re bundled up in your scarf, hat, and mittens.  I was standing on the train platform this morning during my morning commute thinking about the lovely weather we had this weekend.

It was St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago which, depending on the area, can be a chaotic mess.  A friend of mine and I chose to head out of the city to see Asian orchid flower displays at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  There were lovely displays of orchids and all their bright, shimmering glory with warm welcoming hues of purple and yellow and red.  The flowers were displayed along the walls with a quiet water fixture in the middle.  It was incredibly calming and peaceful.

It was also very sunny out and warmer than had been during the week.  Last St. Patrick’s Day, it was miserably cold.  I remember standing in a courtyard at the base of Trump Tower looking at the river and waiting for it to turn green.  It wasn’t the coldest day of winter, but it was sure one of the coldest days.  SO much trouble to stand amongst drunk suburbanites and college students waiting to see a dirty river change colors.  As festive as I can be, I wanted no part of it this year.

Not only were the orchid displays gorgeous, it was also a really lovely day.  The sun was out and the temperature has risen enough to where I could comfortably walk around without my jacket.  And it kept getting nicer as the day progressed.  Later that day, I was sitting on a Metra platform, reading a book and my bare arms were exposed.  I marveled at how warm and inviting everything felt.  It only got better the next day with more sun and even warmer temperatures.  One of my purest joys in life is the first day I can comfortably wear short sleeves all day.  I got to experience that on Sunday and that is when I’m officially over winter.  Just a little taste of spring and I have to have it all.

Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet.  I was reminded just how unpredictably March in Chicago can be as I was shivering on the train platform.  I may not have actually been that cold.  It may have been an unconscious reaction considering the delightful weather I just experienced over the weekend.  Like an addict going cold turkey, I was shaking all over.  I need another hit of that spring awakening.

As I wait for Chicago to make up its mind and fully commit to spring, I ease the transition by listening to music that, for me, evokes fun in the sun.  Not quite the fun you find when its time to hit the beach, but the kind of fun where you can walk through parks without splashing around in dirty slush or slipping on the sidewalks.  I’m talking about the fun in the sun where you can go for a run, practice for your upcoming softball league, or maybe even grab a delicious treat from any of the fro-yo shops that are beginning to bloom.

Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass” is the perfect song for such an occasion.  “Grazing in the Grass” was composed by Philemon Hou and recorded by Masekela in 1968.  Most people are more familiar with the 1969 cover by the Friends of Distinction with the added lyrics, but Masekela’s original evokes a more calm and casual feeling.

The song was inspired by “Mr. Bull No. 5,” a novelty record that Masekela had heard in Zambia earlier.  In fact, “Grazing in the Grass” almost wasn’t released.  Masekela was working on his 1968 The Promise of a Future, but was short by three minutes.  At the record company’ suggestion, Masekela recorded the song along with Philemon Hou, also in the studio, who wrote a new melody.

Masekela’s signature trumpet sound on the track, just like spring, is gorgeous and not overbearing.  I just feel really good listening to it because it is simultaneously calming and motivating.  It makes me want to get out, move, and just enjoy the world around me.  This year, Masekela’s recordings was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Sadly, Masekela passed away earlier this year.  As one of South Africa’s best musicians, he championed anti-apartheid sentiments in his compositions.  Much of his work closely reflected his experiences growing up in segregated townships.  During the 1950s and 1960s in South Africa, Masekela faced extreme racism and exploitation under apartheid.  He managed to channel this into his revolutionary music that protested government-mandated violence and slavery.

While “Grazing in the Grass” may not have the same political furor as “Bring Him Back Home” or “Soweto Blues,” the song is powerful in its own right.  The power the song has comes from it evoking happiness and peace.  Amidst all the suffering and violence black South Africans faced from their oppressors, there was still a desire and yearning for joy.  Walking peacefully through the grass may not seem a revolutionary act to most people, but the drive to live a life where you can do what you please is one.

I understand that bracing one’s self against Chicago winters and institutionalized slavery are not the same things. However, my experience with this track is different than the context with which it was composed and recorded.  Back then, it is a yearning and declaration for one’s own sense of peace from oppression.  For me, right now, it means happiness on a smaller scale.  In the end, its all happiness and, baby, I can dig it.

“love your neighbor” – ladysmith black mambazo (1990)

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I have been volunteering at the Old Town School of Folk Music for nearly three years.  Volunteering there was a great outlet for a few different reasons.  For one, it was a way to give back to my community.  Secondly, the added experience looks great on a resume.  Finally, and perhaps best of all, I get points that I can apply towards discounted music classes or free concert tickets.  Being an active volunteer has helped with my guitar playing hobby and seeing some great acts.

On Saturday, I took a friend to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo.  I had originally seen the famous South African a capella group back in 2012 also at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  I was really excited for that show.  I had recently watched a screening of a documentary at the Music Box Theatre called Under African Skies.  That documentary was about Paul Simon revisiting South Africa to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his album Graceland which prominently featured members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and would subsequently launch them on the world stage.  That show in 2012 was remarkable and a real treat.

The funny thing is that when I posted about seeing the group in 2012, I got a lot of comments from people saying they didn’t know they were a real group.  The group is a memorable punchline in the 2004 film Mean Girls.  That seemed so strange to me.  Ladysmith Black Mambazo was founded in 1960 by Joseph Shabalala and has seen numerous iterations over the years. The current iteration features four of the founders’ sons. Granted they weren’t world-renowned figures until Paul Simon came along, but they always seemed ubiquitous to me.  One of those entities you had heard of even if you may not know a single thing about them or their work.  However, for millennials, that cultural reference point is a film comedy which led them to believe it was just a made-up name.  It is funny how things work out like that.

Anyway, back to 2018.  My friend was also one of those people who only knew the name through the association in Mean Girls and that they were involved with Paul Simon.  She didn’t know what the show and experience of watching the group would consist of.

Seeing Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a real treat.  First and foremost, they are an a capella group.  That is the heart of their talent and they excel at that.  Shabalala started the group after hearing certain isicathamiya (traditional music of the Zulu people) harmonies in his dreams.  This vocal presentation is highly rhythmic which each member devoted to a specific part often with a lead driving the group with their own chant.

The singing is amazing, but only scope of the group’s appeal with a live setting.  Their performance is also very visual and physically active.  Members of the group will make hand gestures or perform chorus line type kicks that add to the spectacle.  Towards the end of the performance, various members will perform highly rhythmic dances that incorporate their own traditional ethnic influences as well as some humor in the form of physical comedy.  It is completely unexpected and keeps you engaged.

Seeing Ladysmith Black Mambazo is great because of their vocal talents coupled with the lively dancing.  I knew that when I saw them in 2012 and I knew I would love it again in 2018.  However, there was one aspect of this particular performance that stood out.

Part of the audience was really vocal during the performance.  They chanted and sang along and communicated with the performers.  At first, I really couldn’t make out what exactly was going on.  Midway through the show, when one of the performers was talking about being homesick, the people in the audience who were making noises earlier yelled out “you’re making all of us homesick.”  Then it struck me and everything started to make sense. They were Afrikaners.

This past week, I have been reading David Byrne’s How Music Works.  In the book, he breaks down how music fits in our world, specifically the physical aspect, and affects our culture.  His book covers industry-specific issues such as how to market music that is made, but he primarily talks about the process of making music and how the music that is made is indicative of our surroundings.  There’s a lot he covers in the book, but one aspect he touches upon is relevant here.  He talks about the role of the audience in Western society.  In the early 1900s, in large concert halls where classical music was performed, audiences weren’t quiet and focused on the performances with rapt attention.  They mingled and chatted and the music served as part of the background.  Over the last century, that has completely changed.  Especially when it comes to specific types of music and venues.  We are now expected to be quiet and not be distracting.

That’s with regards to Western audiences.  Byrne also provides examples where the exact opposite happens now.  Byrne talks about his experiences seeing local music in places like Africa and Bali where music and the performance of music is a more communal thing.  In places like that, music is more of something one does as opposed to being someone one sees.  It is also interactive and inclusive and people participate as they see fit.

Given that context, I understood the need for these Afrikaners to interact with the performers.  Even without reading Byrne’s analysis, I wouldn’t have minded their excitement.  The music was moving them that much and it is ridiculous that the non-Afrikaners were expecting them to be quiet and not enjoy their native land’s music as they saw fit.  Seeing that during the week I’m reading a book on the topic is just serendipitous and reinforces that there is a vast array of ways to enjoy music.

One thing I love about Ladysmith Black Mambazo is their positivity and humanism.  Most of the songs introduced at the concert were prefaced with short stories or proclamations about loving everyone regardless of their race.  One song that stuck out for me from the concert was “Love Your Neighbor.”  The track was originally released and recorded on their 1990 studio album Two Worlds, One Heart.  It was later re-recorded for their 2017 compilation Songs of Peace & Love for Kids & Parents Around the World.

In the re-recorded version, there is an introduction.  The speaker says “We all have friends and neighbors. People who live close to us. We call this our community. It is important to love everyone in our community and to show love and respect to your neighbors. If you can do this, then they will show love and respect to you.  This is how we all can help to make the world a better place.”  This sentiment was also shared with audience at Saturday’s performance.

The news in recent weeks has been terrible.  The school shooting in Florida has been devastating and has driven the same dialogue and inaction we have seen time and time again over the years.  It is numbing and I feel certain that nothing will change, but then I see the children from that school speak to crowds and march in the streets and it gives me hope.

One of the performance form Ladysmith Black Mambazo, when introducing another song, said that there will always be tough times.  However, tough times don’t last but strong people do.  Keeping that in mind along with taking the time to understand, respect, and love our neighbors is what is going strengthen our world.  And it is amazing to have those feelings reaffirmed and made prescient through music.  Music that can inspire us whether we watch it with all the attention we can muster or whether we participate in whatever way that moves us.