Certain Birds Make Certain Sounds: an Interview with Hugh Masekela
When Hugh picked up the phone and I asked him how he was doing, he forewent any standard return greeting. Rather than say he was fine, great or lousy, he offered instead a description of his surroundings: “I’m sitting on the porch in a rocking chair, looking at the purple mountain range in the hazy, slightly cloudy atmosphere. There’s a beautiful breeze blowing from the east, west, south or north, I don’t know where it’s blowing from. And I’m sitting next to our tour manager and we are rocking in these chairs and we’re looking at our bus and some trail ways. And it’s a beautiful spring day in rural Pennsylvania. You couldn’t beat that.”
The night before, he and his band had played a sold out show at Bucknell University. It was their 5th concert in a string of U.S. dates that will bring them to the Marin Center on April 27th. Masekela is admittedly busier than he has ever been in his remarkable 50-year career. Though the image of the old man on the porch in a rocking chair is misleading, his use of description is an apt way to go about things. In the music and life of Hugh Masekela, context is everything.
With his versatility as a trumpeter, bandleader and composer, he has moved effortlessly across all genres, collaborating with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Marvin Gaye, Herb Alpert, The Byrds, and Paul Simon. The timeless instrumental “Grazin’ in the Grass” brought him international acclaim in 1968. From that point on he would become a kind of global ambassador for the vibrancy and history of music. It was only 8 years prior to “Grazing” that he had moved to New York to escape the inexorable violence sparked by apartheid in South Africa. Now, just as then, his awareness and experiences ignite an outspokenness on issues of inequality, heritage, politics, and of course, music.
What can you tell me about the band you’re currently on tour with?
They are all outstanding players. We have been together four years now and we’ve done 2 records. The first one, ‘Jabulani’, was the one nominated for a Grammy. They are outstanding players, not just in the Jabulani style but in all kinds of styles. And we play great as an ensemble. The audiences are blown away, and that is a better description than what a critic would write. They have their own terms like Urban Contemporary and all that other bullshit.
In concert you guys reinterpret a lot of the material, arranging it much differently than on the recordings. Is that something you set out to do or does it happen naturally as you play together?
I think that you set out to make it better and more enjoyable for the people you play for. In the end, performance is about making stuff spectacular, unless you’re playing for yourself. I mean there are many artists who come there to show you how fast they can play, that they can play while standing on their head, you know, all that kind of stuff. The kind of music and musicians that I interact with are the ones who work hard at their instruments and want to be outstanding at what they do. And also like to live well off it. So I would say we are scholars of music – ongoing scholars of music.
We don’t think about all these other things that are happening, although I mean we understand what they are, but… the people I am playing with have been playing music since they were kids and they went into it because they loved music and were gifted in it. And so they don’t need accessories, except maybe for effect. Like we still use microphones by the way. [Laughs] So we can be better heard but we really don’t go over the top. We’re not technicians, we’re musicians.
During the president’s 2nd inaugural, you were honored with an award at the award at the White House. Have you reflected on that experience yet?
You know, I’m 74 now. I’ve lived in the world of public interest since I was 16 years old. Those things that happen, like awards, etcetera, are fantastic at the moment that they happen. But the next day I’m gone. I mean, I might not remember too much of this interview with you, because tomorrow I’ll be doing 3 more. The next day I’ll be doing 5 more. Since the White House, we went to the Grammies, where we were nominated, and then we went to Europe, then we went to Nigeria, then to Australia and New Zealand to Japan. Now we are here in the states, and next month I’ll be in the Caribbean. You can only remember so much and people sometimes get so hurt. You know, when you meet them and they say ‘Don’t you remember me? 1967, I was wearing the green shirt and my girl was wearing the red dress.’ [Laughs] ‘It’s me, man. It’s me, Hugh!’ So you can’t walk around going, ‘Wow, wow I was at the white house.’ It’s gone.
Are the speaking engagements and interviews something you enjoy doing?
Well, if you’re going to take something up, you have to take the world that it comes with. Interviews are very, very easy when you think that the entertainment business is the most accessible one in the world. You don’t have to have a diploma to claim to be a manager or whatever. It is inundated by every kind of character, you know. Either wants an autograph or wants to sell you something or wants to give you something, or wants to hang with you, wants to rip you off.
So, in the list of all that and having to know…you know, talent is not enough. You have to learn how and understand how it works to be in the whole entertainment world. I think to a very great extent marketing and sales and media are the integral products. You grow up with it. I’ve been doing it for over 50 years. It seems to be part of the world.
But I am very privileged to be in music, to do what I love to do, to get paid for it, and to see some of the world’s greatest airports and hotels. [Laughs] You don’t see anything in any of the towns that you go to.
I’ve heard you speak about the various detriments to music when it is viewed and valued as pure commodity. Do you have advice for people trying to navigate the increasingly commoditized atmosphere of music making?
The only advice you can have for anybody is that you have to learn it. Like I said before, talent is not enough. You have to go out and learn how it works, how the business works. Otherwise, I mean…You know, if you’re a visual artist you have to know everything about galleries and dealers, imitators and theft. If you are going to go into something, and you are living in a modern world, you have to learn that world in order to be able to operate. You can’t just enter anything starry eyed. If you’re going to be a boxer, you have to learn now only how to punch but how to take punches.
I was looking at the venues you are playing on this tour. Many of them are concert halls and auditoriums that typically host classical music, where the audiences are accustomed to sitting and listening quietly. But I know that isn’t quite your style. Have you found yourself having to work harder to get the crowd involved?
Our concert is built so that we start off by playing as well as we can; to show our virtuosity and our interaction with each other as an ensemble. So that seems to serve all those kinds of people well. Towards the end of the show we have them singing with us and dancing with us. So we cater to all.
I was watching a clip the other day where you addressed the crowd and said “Some of you may have never screamed in your life before. This is your chance.”
Not even in bed.
It seems that you view the concert as a chance for liberation, then.
Well, people come to see you. They prepare for a long time. You know, the concert is announced months before. Some people plan for it, you know, for many people it eats into their budget. And some people might buy a new flower lapel or new shoes or a new dress. Some people have to get babysitter. So these people come there with the hope of really having a great time. And they’ve come to listen to someone they’ve lived with in their living rooms. You have to make it worthwhile their having come, and if you don’t want to do that than you need to see a head doctor. Because if you are into yourself more than the audience, that is going to be your tragic flaw.
If you are an artist, and I think you’ve notice that, like… many artists are done in by the affect that after a while they think they are godly. But really you have to appreciate that those people come there because they appreciate you. They pay their money and they make plans to come and see you. So if nothing else out of respect you have to make it worthwhile for them.
In the early 60s, you immersed yourself in a New York jazz scene that included Coltrane, Miles, Monk and many more of the most revered names in music. A lot has been written about that period. Having been there, do you ever hear misconceptions about that time?
The main one is that they just appeared, or that all of modern music came from there. But they came from somewhere. They didn’t come from nowhere. We’d have to go back to Louis Armstrong and Buddy Bolden and King Oliver, all those people who came out of New Orleans and put together what you’d call ensemble playing, new urban ensemble playing, that was based on a fusion between African life and their being forcefully exposed to a European kind of urban life. And they found a void and a niche and also a way to earn money. And they picked up these western instruments and came up with what journalists and media people call jazz, you know. For them it was music, and it came from somewhere.
Music doesn’t just … is not just periodical. It’s an ongoing process; it’s been there ever since there has been life, long before humanity there was sound. So we are working only with what we have found here, and we try to enhance it, you know. Like the bebop musicians took it from swing and opened it up and enhanced it. And then others came and tried to take it to other places and they call it fusion and they call it avant garde, you know. But in the end music lasts forever that pleases the mind, that pleases the soul, you know what I mean? Whether it’s Bach or Palestrina or Debussy or Ravel. Whether it’s Michelle Legrande or Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald or Puccini or Pavarotti. But what you’ll find is that excellence in song is what makes great artists in the end. It is song and harmony and the music and the melody that fascinate the lay person. When it becomes very convoluted, other eccentrics come to, like, admire it and they form their own teams. [Laughs] But the majority of people just like a simple melody.
I think that’s one of the things about your music that has struck a chord with people. It is carried out with skill and craft but it is still accessible.
Exactly, exactly. But I don’t have to dictate it for other people. In other words, I am just talking about me, what goes for me is what I do and I admire all kinds of music, every kind of music there is.
I make lyrics too, like… in my yard, I have a garden and a very big yard. Certain birds make certain sounds. In my silly time in the garden I try to put lyrics to that sound, or put words to them, because its music, you know. So like if a bird is up and it goes ‘Chirp chada chada cha chow’, to me it sounds like ‘you silly mother fucker.’ [Laughs] But those are little fun things I have with myself. They’re music, you know. Music is just a pleasant combination of sounds, and it’s amazing that you don’t need a language.