Hugh Masekela: the birthday boy celebrates

The Times (UK)
By Clive Davis

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.”