Soothing the Soul With Jazz Classic “Skokiaan” by Hugh Masekela and Herb Alpert

I recently had to work six-day work weeks. To keep me feeling good and being positive, I am listening to more jazz; either classic or smooth. Jazz has that element that can soothe the listener’s soul while exciting their souls, quenching it for more. Any type of jazz (classic, smooth, fusion) is never dull, it is the opposite! Do you feel the same way?

One of my recent favorites is Hugh Masekela and Herb Alpert’s rendition of the jazz classic “Skokiaan”.

Making My Wish Come True

I want to talk about a piece from a country that I haven’t mentioned before and something that was released before 1980. The reason is that I wish to have more variety within this blog and not just suggesting new release, always mentioning songs from only one decade, or featuring from a selected number of countries.

Apparently, Spotify heard my wish as today’s song was found on the “Discover Weekly” playlist. For those who don’t know, Fast Company explains perfectly what is this playlist:

“Discover Weekly is a playlist of songs that automatically appears each Monday in every Spotify user’s account. It analyzes that person’s listening history, focusing on the music he or she has played recently. It then compares that insight to the playlisting behavior of others. Scanning millions of playlists, the system finds tracks that are commonly listed alongside music with which a user is already familiar and then groups those tracks together into a new, personalized playlist. It essentially takes the tried-and-true “people who like that, also like this” logic of collaborative filtering and applies it to the process of making a mixtape.”[1]

It’s basically a mixtape of songs you like. That is how I found “Skokiaan” by trumpeters Herb Alpert and Hugh Masekela.

Revamping A Pop Tune for Jazz

“Skokiaan” wasn’t a song that was originally done by the duo. The original was actually released in 1947 by Zimbabwean musician August Musarurwa. It was written in the tsaba-tsaba big-band style. This subgenre is related to marabi style, an emerging style under African jazz back in the day. According to the Central African Journal of Medicine, “Skokiaan” refers to “an illegal self-made alcoholic beverage typically brewed over one day that may contain ingredients such as maize meal, water, and yeast, to speed up the fermentation process”.[2]

Speaking of marabi, this type of jazz was influenced by jazz from the United States between the 1920s and 1940s. But, it added a South African twist to it. Garland Encyclopedia of Music further points out that “most South African jazz musicians could not read scores, so they developed their own jazz flavor, mixing American swing with African melodies. The dynamic blend of African-American structure and African style became the basis for early South African township jazz known as marabi.”[3]

When Herb Alpert and Hugh Masekela got their hands on the piece, it was already covered fifty times by different artists. It was covered by very famous musicians like Louis Armstrong, Bill Haley & His Comets, and Paul Anka. It was adapted in various styles like reggae, merengue, and mento. In the United States, it was popular enough to peak the charts in 1954, all thanks to The Four Lads and Johnny Hodges.

The song has further been covered by various artists around the world after the Herb Alpert and Hugh Masekela version was released in 1978. Even the popular kids’ tunes group The Wiggles performed a version on the album Furry Tales, released five years ago. (I link a live performance of The Wiggle’s version below for all those moms and preschool teachers out there).

Why This Version?

You probably asking “Why did you choose this version when there are ones done by legendary artists?” True, no one can beat Louis Armstrong in being the best trumpeter in the modern musical world. However, compared to the versions of “Skokiaan” that I have listened to, Herb Alpert and Hugh Masekela’s version is more upbeat and has a good feeling to it. This positive vibe starts at beat one when the piece opens with a fast-paced, miffed electronic guitar solo. The trumpet then comes in, adding more onto that optimistic feeling.

Hugh Masekela

A nice touch to the song is when the chorus comes in at around the 1:15 mark. The lyrics are not sung in English but in a native language from the southern part of Africa. The style of how the vocalists sing the lines is done in a manner akin to African melodies. This stylistic decision was a brilliant one as it showcases that “Skokiaan” isn’t just some generic jazz piece, it’s a piece that truly embraces the idea of South Africa jazz.

Another nice touch is the trumpets. Compared to Louis Armstrong’s version, Herb Alpert and Hugh Masekela softens the trumpet’s sound to make the piece feel more relaxed and playful. And, the idea of having two trumpets playing together during the chorus section is wonderfully done. The sound produced by the two is bold, but not over the top, and they blend together quite nicely in a fun way.

Final Thoughts

Herb Alpert and Hugh Masekela’s take on “Skokiaan” is upbeat and fun. It makes the listener want to dance as it’s fast pace and light mood makes anyone feel good. Also, it is the perfect music to listen to at work or during a car ride. However, this “Skokiaan” reminds the listener that it’s not just any jazz piece, but one influenced by South African jazz with its mixture of lighthearted jazz and South African melodies.

Hugh Masekela, jazz musician

Hugh Masekela was a South African trumpeter, flugelhornist, cornetist, composer, and singer. He was often referred to as the “the father of South African jazz”. After seeing the film “Young Man with a Horn” when he was 14, Masekela started to play the trumpet. While mastering the instrument, his schoolmates became interested in playing musical instruments and thus paved the way for Masekela to form the Huddleston Jazz Band. When Louis Armstrong took notice of the band, Masekela joined Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz Revue in 1956. The trumpeter garnered his only No. 1 hit on the US charts in 1968 with the song “Grazing in the Grass”. Sadly, the father of South African jazz passed away this past January due to prostate cancer.

Wikipedia has described Masekela’s musical journey as: “Masekela played music that closely reflected his life experience. The agony, conflict, and exploitation South Africa faced during the 1950s and 1960s inspired and influenced him to make music and also spread political change. He was an artist who in his music vividly portrayed the struggles and sorrows, as well as the joys and passions of his country. His music protested about apartheid, slavery, government; the hardships individuals were living. Masekela reached a large population that also felt oppressed due to the country’s situation.”[4]

Herb Alpert, jazz musician

Herb Alpert is an American jazz musician and a recording music executive as he co-founded A&M Records with Jerry Moss. Focusing on trumpet and wire recorder during his early years, Alpert performed in various groups like the United States Army Band and the USC Trojan Marching Band. After college, Alpert went onto write songs for various musicians like Jan and Dean and Sam Cooke. In the 60s, influenced by the mariachi music style he heard in Tijuana, Mexico, Alpert put together the jazz band Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. It lasted for about five years, but there have been subsequent reunions ever since.