Hugh Masekela at 70 is still magnificent, even if he now longer has oppression to fight against.
In a recent column I spoke about the difficulties of artistic creation in countries liberated from long oppression, and asked rhetorically: “Without the struggle, what can we sing about?”.
Hugh Masekela’s concert last Thursday with the London Symphony Orchestra gave the simple answer: love and life. As he reminded us, black South Africans did not spend their whole lives protesting, they sang love songs too. ’This song was a hit in 1949, and because of it there were many babies born in 1950!” he about jovially about Lizzy, a romantic ballad from the township, and hearing it we knew just why.
There were lullabies too, of course, and we heard a particularly beautiful one in the shape of Thula-thula. We also heard folk-songs from other parts of Africa, and Masekela’s own signature tune Grazing in the Grass. Some of them were sung by Masekela in that gravely voice, but more often he played them in that unmistakable golden flugelhorn tone, so soft it seems to have no attack at all.
Masekela has now turned 70, but the years have hardly touched him. He stands tall and ramrod straight, and with that special African gift of being dignified and exuberantly colourful at the same time. He was surrounded by friends on the stage to bolster the singing, and after each song Masekela would name them all, in a gesture of solidarity that was as moving as the songs themselves.
Inevitably the atmosphere grew warm with nostalgia. The spirit of Miriam Makeba, the great voice of the struggle against apartheid seemed to hang in the air, and the air of relaxed benevolence was abetted by the very luxuriantly harmonised orchestral backing to the songs, arranged by Jason Yarde. At times it threatened to become just too soft-centred, but there two new orchestral pieces to give a sharp jolt of energy.
The first of them, a mini-flugelhorn concerto from Jason Yarde, had the composer’s engaging mix of tender lyricism and sudden rude shocks; the second, Andrew McCormack’s Incentive, mingled a film noir atmosphere with middle-period Stravinskian rhythmic energy, to energising effect.
But the best moment of the evening came towards the end, with Masekela’s wonderful song Stimela about the trains that carry migrant workers from their homes. He evoked the sound of the train in a piercing scream that could have been pure fun; but one couldn’t miss the implication of human tragedy underneath.
The veteran South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela turned 70 in April, and this concert was a belated birthday offering from the London Symphony Orchestra and its community choir. It fell into UBS’s Soundscapes season, so there were new compositions as well. The opener, “Rude Awakening”, was composed by Masekela’s arranger, the British saxophonist Jason Yarde. Floating, dreamy strings and reeds, interspersed with harp arpeggios, were ruptured by helter-skelter xylophone and panicky brass.
The other new composition Andrew McCormack’s “Incentive”, began spikily, with bows slapped on strings while the brass shrilled and shrieked: it built up energetically before backing up to its starting point.
Bagatelles aside, the main body of the concert was Masekela’s show. “Grazing In The Grass” saw him play its joyous circling riff, calling to the responses from the brass section. The flutes latched on to the riff and played it exquisitely quietly, over tuba and cowbell. Masekela smiled.
He played “Nomaliza”, which he had heard Miriam Makeba, his sometime wife, sing when she was a young starlet and he a precocious schoolboy. Yarde set it to lush Hollywood strings, with Masekela first sticking to the melody, then taking off around it while the trombones crooned.
A series of Southern African folk songs, bolstered by the community choir, were beefed up into anthems. “Nomathemba”, made popular by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, had its breathy catlike tread steamrollered into gospel triumphalism, with Masekela’s fluegelhorn fanfare bursting into life at the end.
The climax of the concert was “Stimela”, Masekela’s angry song about the steam trains that bring migrant workers from all over Southern Africa to work on the Reef. He whistled and grunted in vocalised audio documentary, interspersed with growling monologue. “Down, down, down in the belly of the earth,” he cried, his voice plunging like a mine elevator. Yarde played a plangent saxophone solo, followed by Masekela on fluegelhorn, fidgety, bitter, defiant. And then the evening finished, as it had to, with a real anthem: “Nkosi Sikelele” sung with a swing by the massed choir, better than any Happy Birthday.
Hugh Masekela’s birthday party has been going on for some time. In April South Africa’s musical godfather celebrated his 70th with a spirited show at the Cape Town Jazz Festival, a standing-room-only affair where the crowd surged back and forth in jubilant waves. Outside on the streets election posters flapped in the air as the country awaited the coronation of the new ANC leader, Jacob Zuma. On that night you almost sensed that, had he chosen to run, the trumpeter would have won in a landslide.
He blows out more candles, metaphorically speaking, at the Barbican on Thursday in an ambitious concert with the LSO that will blend jazz, folk songs and extended works by the likes of the young British saxophonist Jason Yarde. A border-crossing evening, in short, from an artist who has made a habit of undermining conventional categories. He does not even care to be called a jazz musician. It clearly still clearly rankles with him that Leonard Feather, one of the most venerable of American jazz writers, gave him a bad write-up more than 40 years ago: “He said I knew nothing about jazz,” Masekela glowers. “But I’d never said I was a jazz musician.”
At this juncture, he fixes me with a smouldering look that sets me wondering, somewhat guiltily, when I last gave him a negative notice. There was certainly a spell, 15 to 20 years ago, when his shows sometimes seemed to be going through the motions. Tours alongside Paul Simon had attracted a new generation of listeners, but years of heavy drinking were also taking their toll. Fortunately, once he decided to address his dependency on alcohol — and spliffs — his performances took on a new majesty.
“I’m practising more than ever now,” he explains. “My playing is more advanced than when I was 30 or 40 years old, because then I was getting by on talent. My goal is no longer about just playing my instrument but playing it with ease.”
The grand old man does not really look so old. There is an aura of calm about him and he has become an adherent of t’ai chi. After decades of pouring his energies into hard living and political causes, he is now more interested in looking inward.
Not that he has lost his passion for speaking out about issues that trouble him. The state of the music industry, for instance, has long been one of his bugbears. The cult of money has grown ever more powerful, he says, and the mechanistic tendencies unleashed by disco in the 1970s have simply gathered pace.
“The industry was taken over by lawyers and accountants and technology,” he says with a melancholy shake of the head. “I don’t consider it music. It’s no longer about art; it’s about how many units you can sell. And with technology you don’t need to be a musician — you just have to be mathematical to put something together.”
A veteran who devoted much of his life to the anti-apartheid campaign, he struggles to come to terms with the values of the new generation. “Some of my nephews were wearing their pants beneath their asses,” he recalls. “I said, ‘What’s it all about? Can you break it down for me?’ ”
The nephews could perhaps have argued that they were responding to American popular culture in much the same way as Masekela’s generation once did. After all, he first acquired an appetite for playing the trumpet after watching Kirk Douglas portray Bix Beiderbecke on screen in the film Young Man With a Horn. What worries Masekela, though, is what he sees as the decline of the street culture that nurtured the talents of his cohort of musicians. At a press conference in Cape Town he dwelt on the lack of opportunities for young people to gather to make music at community rallies, festivals or in marching bands. Moreover, in his home town of Johannesburg, fear of crime has driven people indoors. TV takes the place of real life.
Once a passionate supporter of the ANC, he distanced himself from the movement as he watched Mandela’s protégé, Thabo Mbeki, preside over a culture of greed and corruption. Yet a patriotic impulse makes him hold back when the subject is raised in London: “Why should I be just disappointed with South Africa when the politicians of the world are rotten?” His country, he complains, has become the world’s “scapegoat”, although surely the truth is that outsiders are, by and large, well-wishers who simply hope that the country will overcome the burden of its own history.
Still, Masekela can hardly be blamed if he has grown weary of playing the role of oracle. (“I just feel that after a time I sound like a parrot. People are exhausted by politics. You can ask anyone in South Africa, and they’ll say the same.”) And so his focus has shifted more towards raising consciousness at a cultural level, working on projects that celebrate traditional songs and melodies. Africa as a whole, he says, still needs to grasp the value of its own heritage.
He cultivates his own garden too. T’ai chi is one means to that end. He has also taken up sculpture, which was one of his father’s hobbies too. More and more, he has come to recognise the importance of bringing the mind into focus.
“One thing I found since I took up t’ai chi is that I don’t lose my temper any more. I miss my temper sometimes, but it’s fantastic, when somebody annoys you, to be able to smile. The Sioux Indians say the most dignified thing you can own is silence. I’m trying to live not a serene old age but a contemplative and productive old age, focused and clear-minded. If I can call it old age, that is. I certainly don’t feel old.”
The last time I heard the trumpeter and singer Hugh Masekela was at a New Year’s Eve party in 1990 on the slopes of Table Mountain. Nelson Mandela had recently been released and Masekela had returned from exile.
The hot night air blew in from False Bay, and conversation crackled with nervous anticipation of the year ahead. From the windows of the Cape Dutch Menell house at Glendirk, Masekela’s mournful flugelhorn wailed across the mountainside. It was not a cry of future liberation but an echo of past sadness and oppression. It was utterly beautiful.
That horn was no less beautiful on Wednesday night. At London’s Barbican the diminutive Masekela, now 68, picked up the entire London Symphony Orchestra, swirled it above his head and rammed it full of electricity. “It is not true,” he cried in delight, “that symphony orchestras can’t swing.” The concrete acres and bleak empty decks of the Barbican receded and the sandy-coloured wooden walls of the hall took on the shades of the bushveldt.
From student hostels, embassies and enclaves had emerged the capital’s African diaspora. They filled the hall, shouting, clapping, singing and weeping for their hero, Masekela. As he played the great anthem Morija-Maseru, and called out the names of Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia and Angola, cries of ecstatic recognition broke out from the audience. However briefly, he had brought today’s exiles home.
Masekela’s enterprise with the LSO was the brainchild of its remarkable director, Kathryn McDowell. She had not only to marry a jazz trumpeter to a symphony orchestra, which is no longer new, but also rearrange Masekela’s music for classical players, have them play with appropriate rhythm, and make use of the local St Luke’s community choir. Small wonder Masekela described the operation as “a hazardous trip” that had left him “scared stiff”.
He struck gold in his orchestral arranger, Jason Yarde, a Rastafarian Guyanan with a remarkable talent both as saxophonist and composer. In return, Masekela performed the premiere of Yarde’s concerto for trumpet and orchestra, an uplifting piece entitled All Souls Seek Joy. Yarde is a musician to watch. In his work, “world” meets jazz meets crossover to the point where such terms mean nothing. We are left with just glorious music.
Masekela, though an orthodox jazz trumpeter, embodies this phenomenon.
The son of educated parents, he learned the piano at school, but when he saw a film in which Kirk Douglas played Bix Beiderbecke he knew the trumpet was for him. “Discovered” by the anti-apartheid priest Trevor Huddleston, he was given an instrument and, still in his teens, formed the first African jazz band to record an album. After Sharpeville, Masekela left South Africa and went to London’s Guildhall school of music and then to study in Manhattan, fortunate in the patronage of such musicians as Menuhin, Dankworth, Belafonte and Gillespie. He briefly married his fellow emigre Miriam Makeba, and lived in various African countries before, on Mandela’s release in 1990, feeling able to return home.
Masekela looks like a mischievous but dignified imp. On Wednesday he stood in front of the august LSO, erect and immaculate in a black poncho, gently swaying to the rhythm in stylish contrast to the gauche jitterbugging of the young French conductor, Francois-Xavier Roth. He played old favourites Grazing in the Grass, Lizzy and Nomalizo, one of the few South African songs about love rather than oppression. “But when we do love,” remarked Masekela, “it is lethal: every song means babies.”
His signature piece remains Stimela, the Rock Island Line of the veldt. With a softly blown horn and a gravelly voice, Masekela tells of a steam train carrying migrant workers to the mines, the music elevated by Yarde into a crescendo of orchestral sound. Masekela dominated the stage, rendering the LSO little more than a backing group. He danced, swayed and strutted, imitating the migrants, the train driver, the conductor, the engine and even its whistle all in one. The audience rose from their seats and roared.
April 25, 2009 – Trumpeter Hugh Masekela turned 70 earlier this month. But there are no hints of retirement in his music.
Masekela is a jazz giant who was born in South Africa. He fled apartheid, settling in London and later Los Angeles, and then returned to South Africa after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. He is just finishing up a U.S. tour, complete with the release of his 35th album as a bandleader. It’s called Phola — a term that means “to get well” or “to heal.”
“Africa has been troubled for a long time — well, the world has been troubled ever since I was born,” Masekela says. “But I think in the last 20 years, the troubles in Africa have escalated to a point where I think it needs to heal. And I personally, I think, have settled down in my life, and I’ve relaxed and healed.”
In an interview with Scott Simon, Masekela says he has recorded several “songs of concern” on Phola. In “Bring It Back Home,” he sings, “When they get inside the fort / they don’t need you anymore / They don’t return your phone calls / They got soldiers on every door / who will make you to go away.”
“When people campaign for positions, they promise people all kinds of things,” Masekela says. “And as soon as they get into office, most administrations or administrators forget the constituencies who put them in the big seat. It’s an old political thing — I’m not preaching anything that’s new, you know? So it’s just an observation that, I guess, from time to time you have to remind people.”
Not that he would force anyone to listen to him.
“If you could force people to listen to the lyrics and take them seriously, then you’d be a dictator, just like the dictators that you’re singing about,” Masekela says.
Young Man, Meet Horn
Masekela has studied music since age 6 — when, he says, his parents signed him up for piano lessons to tear him away from the gramophone. “I lived for music since I could think,” he says.
By the time he was 13, Masekela was a talented piano player. But then he saw a certain Kirk Douglas movie — and, separately, he was confronted by his school’s chaplain, anti-apartheid activist and Archbishop Trevor Huddleston.
“He called everybody ‘creature,’ ” Masekela says. “And he said, ‘Creature, you’re always in trouble with the authorities. If you get expelled from this school, no other school will ever accept you. What do you really want to do?’ ”
“And I said, ‘Father, I’ve just seen this movie, Young Man With a Horn.’ It’s the story of Bix Beiderbecke, and Harry James was the trumpet player who played on the soundtrack. And Harry James had probably one of the most beautiful tones on the trumpet that any player ever had. And I said, ‘If you can get me a trumpet, I won’t bother anyone anymore.’ “
Huddleston secured him a trumpet and a teacher from the Johannesburg “Native” Municipal Brass Band. Two months later, Masekela says, he could tap out songs.
“And other kids were like, ‘Oh, Father, can I have a trombone, can I have a clarinet, can I have a saxophone?’ ” he says. “And soon we had the Huddleston Jazz Band.”
When Huddleston was sent into exile for his political stance, he visited the U.S.
“And I think in Rochester [N.Y.], one of the people from his brotherhood was, like, a clarinet player, [and] was a dear friend of Louis Armstrong — he loved Dixieland,” Masekela says. “And Huddleston told him about this youth band that he had started. Louis Armstrong sent us a trumpet, and we became famous overnight.”
Much of Masekela’s early life in music is actually retold on the album, in the autobiographical track “Sonnyboy.”
“I had to run away from home in order to be a musician,” Masekela says. “Because I came from a family of … my father was a health inspector; my mother was a social worker. And I was pretty smart in school. So they expected me to be some kind of academic — schoolteacher, or doctor, lawyer — and they were very disappointed when I told them I wanted to be a musician.
“And my father just lost it and kicked my behind. So I left them a note to say, ‘Hey, sorry, Dad, but this is the way I’m going.’ “
Faces Of Africa
Around the time he picked up the trumpet, Masekela first saw singer Miriam Makeba perform. A few years later, she returned to Johannesburg.
“Three years later, she was singing there with the Manhattan Brothers, and our eyes met,” Masekela says. “And we became very dear friends, and lovers. And four years later, she came to the States and had massive success. And when I came to England, she came to England and said, ‘Look, I got you a scholarship at the Manhattan School of Music with the help of Dizzy Gillespie and John Mehegan and Harry Belafonte’s going to help me to send you to school.’ “
Masekela and the late Makeba were once married, as well. Though Masekela says it was not a successful marriage, the two remained close friends.
“What I want to say, really, about Miriam is that I don’t think there is anybody who ever did for Africa what Miriam did,” he says. “Just really put the face of Africa on the map for the world. And she was just an amazing, an amazing person.”
Masekela also spoke about the state of the South African music community today. He pointed out the irony that music seemed to thrive under the state repression of apartheid.
“It’s actually a paradox that South African music became famous worldwide during apartheid,” Masekela says. “And there was major musical activity in South Africa — when I grew up, it was like the playing fields for one to hone their skills were all over.”
Masekela points out that the police state of apartheid, though intended to segregate and divide, had the benefit of enforcing security. Additionally, the South African government celebrated the accomplishments of its musicians as justification for its segregation.
“When we became free, one of the first things that we did was — we wanted to show the world that we’re not a police state anymore,” Masekela says. “So safety and security really suffered very badly. When a place is not safe at night, and there’s no security, entertainment and recreation just disappear. That is what has happened, and it’s very sad because there’s no place, really, today for musicians … to hone their skills and to develop their talents. I think it’s a great loss.”
He will mark the occasion by performing at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.
The world-renowned trumpeter and flugel horn player is a lot mellower these days.
During a break from rehearsals in Johannesburg, he is in a contemplative mood. “I’ve been calm for a while. I miss my temper, but it’s gone,” he says.
“I’m still outraged by injustice. I always will be. But I’m not wild. I’m not self-indulgent anymore. I live a very healthy life.
“Four years ago, my wife and I took up tai chi. We do it every day religiously, and that has really calmed us down. It gives me fantastic balance and energy. I also swim when I can. And I laugh a lot.”
He has been performing for well over half a century. The anti-apartheid activist, the late Archbishop Trevor Huddlestone, gave him his first trumpet when he was a teenager.
Masekela went into exile in the 1960s and did not return to South Africa until after the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990.
His latest album, Phola, which means “to heal”, reflects his new-found spirit of tranquillity.
“I’m at that point in my life where I’ve been healed of many things, including my own demons,” he says referring to his years of alcohol and drug abuse.
“It’s time to be focused on things that bring joy and healing to people.”
The Phola album, says the musician, is also “a dream and a prayer” for Africa. He remains concerned about the continuing conflict and turmoil in some parts of the continent.
“Africa needs to heal and chill. It breaks my heart to see what’s happening in Somalia, Sudan, Chad and many other places.”
Even at 70, Masekela has lost none of his musical drive and enthusiasm – but he says this is his job.
“People think that being an artist is an occupation of fun, but it’s hard work as you can see from the rehearsals.
“Most people just see the finished product, but we go section by section, and if you want to be a good group, you have to dissect every part of the song before you present it as a whole.”
Masekela remains downbeat about music in South Africa today.
He argues that paradoxically, music flourished in the 1960s and 70s, in spite of the repression of the apartheid era.
This was because artists performed in areas where there was what he calls “a superficial security environment”. Venues were safe because there was a constant police presence.
After the dawn of democracy in 1994 however, many clubs in inner city areas of Johannesburg, like Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville, were forced to close because of crime, he says.
“It killed certain places, and music and theatre became the victims.”
Masekela says it is not easy for South Africa’s young musicians to develop their skills. But those lucky enough to be working with him can draw plenty of inspiration from this ageless jazz maestro.