Hugh Masekela puts down his trumpet, speaks his mind

Toronto Star
By Ashante Infantry Entertainment Reporter

“I believe that it’s incumbent upon every human being to stand up against injustice,” says Masekela.

At 71, legendary South African musician Hugh Masekela remains in full throttle. This year, he debuted, in Johannesburg, a well-received musical, Songs of Migration, celebrating tunes made by African migrant workers; co-hosted (with son Sal) the ESPN documentary Umlando: Through my Father’s Eyes, which aired during the World Cup; released his 28th album Jabulani; and is now touring North America with a sextet.

Mentored by trumpet icons Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, Masekela came to the fore with the 1968 hit “Grazing in the Grass.” His mélange of African rhythms, pop, R&B and jazz fuelled collaborations with the likes of Miriam Makeba (the first of his four wives), The Byrds, Fela Kuti, Herb Alpert and Paul Simon. And after 30 years living in the U.S., England and Botswana, he returned to South Africa in 1990 when Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

The Star spoke with the trumpeter, bandleader, composer and lyricist by phone from a Boston hotel.

In addition to concerts, you’re also giving workshops and lectures on this tour, including a recent one about the artist’s role as an activist; do you believe artists should agitate for change?

I believe that it’s incumbent upon every human being to stand up against injustice, because if they don’t, then they are just as guilty as everyone else in perpetuating the existing injustice. People tend to pass the buck onto artists or activists.

Perhaps artists are thought to have a greater reach than ordinary people.

I think everybody is not an ordinary person. You don’t necessarily have to be an artist or possess a large network of people. If you can reach one person it’s just as good.

The title of your new album Jabulani translates as “everybody get happy.” Is that your current state of mind?

My biggest obsession is heritage restoration. It’s a celebration of old South African wedding songs that I remember from my childhood and teenage days. It’s beautiful marching and dancing music, music of joy. I just wanted the things that I remember. I think our lives have become over-standardized, by especially technology and advertisement.

Africa in particular?

Especially Africa, because I think conquest and advertisement and television and religion has succeeded in manipulating the international African people into a pool of consumership and cheap labour, and in the process has divorced us from admiration of our heritage and relegated our heritage to being primitive and backward and pagan and barbaric; and we’ve come to believe as a society that fallacy. It’s important to turn it around.

Is that why you’ve gotten involved in theatre and film production?

Yes. It’s important for Africans to be at the centre for ownership of their heritage and the way they are portrayed and what our greatest wealth is, which is our heritage and our culture.

What does your production company have on the horizon?

I have two sons who are filmmakers and we’ve just finished a film called Soil that the older wrote and also directed in Ghana. I’m going to L.A. in another month where he lives to do the final edits and place the soundtrack that I did for it. It’s set in the ’50s in a small village outside Accra. It’s about land conflict with a woman as a central powerful figure.

And you have another son who is an ESPN host. No daughters?

Yes. My only girl, she looks after my business interests and our entertainment company . . . Actually, I have another daughter. I have a child, now a 43-year-old woman, in Sweden whom I’ve never met. It’s a strange story, but the mother has kept her away from me all these years. At this point I wonder if I’ll ever meet her.

I’m surprised she hasn’t tried to reach you now that she’s grown.

She hasn’t wanted to, because her mother . . . she sort of conceived the child without my knowledge and went back to Sweden. The Swedish look after all their people and (the authorities) wrote me a letter to say they look after their children and I shouldn’t bother. And I tried to say, “No, connect me,” but I think the mother was . . . I don’t know. If I could I’d tell you what the reasons were, but I don’t know myself. People are strange that way, but I think it’s unfair to the child that we made.


WHO: Hugh Masekela

WHEN: Saturday @ 8 p.m.

WHERE: Koerner Hall

TICKETS: $25-$65 at