There are No Legends, My Friend
What can be said of Bra Hugh Masekela that hasn’t already been expressed, more eloquently by other scribes, over the years? I mean this is a man steeped in global jazz pedigree, from ol’ Satchmo to Harry Belafonte and Fela Kuti. The dude is a bonafide, heavyweight South African rock star. Last year I watched him eclipse a line-up that included the brightest young South African musical talent from the Blk Jks to Simphiwe Dana and Kabelo. He gave them a lesson in how to entertain a crowd. And he’s gonna do it again this weekend in Kirstenbosch. We got the “Nelson Mandela of Jazz” on the phone for an impromptu little chat.
Mahala: So you’re playing Kirstenbosch this Sunday. What can we expect?
Hugh Masekela: Do you guys get your questions from a computer? You always ask the same template questions.
Be gentle with me Hugh, it’s a Monday morning… I think the last time I saw you was at the charity thing at Carnival City.
That’s long ago.
I saw you give a talk a few years ago at the Red Bull Music Academy, and you spoke a lot about the pressure on creative people and how the world treats them like a vampire that wants to feed on their creativity. Do you remember that conversation?
I was most interested in your ideas around creativity and where that creativity comes from and your advice for young people who are trying to make original music and culture.
I think no two people are the same. Everybody is inspired from different experiences and with me it’s never been analytical and I don’t try to analyse other people. I can’t tell you what made Marvin Gaye sound so beautiful when he opened his mouth. Or Nat King Cole or Miriam Makeba. It’s something that comes from within a person and some people get more than others. And it’s how much it possesses you and how passionate you are about it and how you work it and, of course, how much skills you learn to improve your capabilities. If you’re a composer or a singer, you have to develop your instrument, you have to develop your skills because you’re working with inanimate objects like instruments, or a voice, and then you have to also learn the craft and the technology of music and all the components. So you have to be a scholar. But the great thing with art, and especially with music, is that you never stop learning. It’s like a bottomless well. And you can do it all your life. So if you work fairly hard at it, you are able to make it maybe when you’re 80, if you’re not in a hurry and you’re still healthy and you’re fine-tuned. Audio crafts and you become more than a creative musician, you come up with things that fascinate people. But it’s a lifetime study, 24/7.
Things are very different even from 20 years ago when people were making music. One of the big currents these days is that advertising and brands have become the biggest powerbroker in creative culture. How do you feel about the current state of play in that regard?
Yeah but there will always be people who like music. There will always be people who are passionate about music, so there will always be that segment of society that supports live music. The biggest thing right now in non-technological music, is live music. People are coming out. We just toured the States, we did fourteen concerts and we sold-out every one, except one, and the people really want to come out to have a good time. There’s a great segment of people who are not necessarily advert or technology crazy, who want to actually have a CD in their hands and I think that will evolve into an audience just as big as the audience for classical music. There will just be people who want to hear music. I think advertising to a great extent and technology to a very great extent have been disadvantageous to art. That a person can just simulate voices and beats and make some of the biggest hits today. That area of music has become about how many units you can sell rather than content. I’m not really a critic, but I know what segment of the music community I belong to, or come from, or am passionate about and I don’t pay attention to trends.
We’re very interested in original music at Mahala, and what that means and who’s making it. Obviously you are a legend in that field but who are you enjoying of late? Who’s making music that you think is important and relevant right now in South Africa?
There are no legends, my friend. Those again are advertising words. Media words. But there are no legends and most people that really consider themselves legends have always self-destructed. When you believe your press then you’re not the same person who started out because they loved what they do. I always try to ward that off, icons and legends, because my grandmother said it very plain, she said: “Listen, you lived here in our house for free for more than seventeen years. You ate more than us. We clothed you. We fed you. We looked after you. We sent you to school. And we exposed you to everything that you’ve heard and it’s from the people who surrounded us and if you don’t know the people you come from then you won’t go anywhere and if you think you’re important, just remember that it took me three years to show you where the bathroom was and I’m still trying to scrub off with ammonia that you left on my back when I used to carry you on my back. And I taught you to talk. I taught you to walk. I taught you how to think and if it weren’t for us you wouldn’t be fokol. So try and remember that all the time, otherwise you’re going to get hurt and if you don’t remember and you don’t tell the story to whoever thinks you’re a legend, then I’ll throw lightening at them and you.” So I’m doing this for your protection.
Thank you bra Hugh.
But I think talent and creativity is a gift of nature and you are blessed with it and I don’t think you should take it for granted. They should be grateful for it and as soon as you start bragging, you are in trouble. I’m just the sum total of the things that I grew up around. What I was lucky to grow up around. And I guess it was fresh days for township communities, but I think that what happened when Apartheid re-shuffled the country, we lost a lot of our mutual admiration because we were manipulated into ethnic groups and conflict just at a time when people were really beginning to work together, especially in the arts and creativity, and that was a big loss. The other loss right now is that the places to play have disappeared because of the new configurations. Like residential life, town planning. We grew up in small townships and there was a community, a welfare centre, a municipal hall in every little township and every township had a band or two and had like singing quartets of men and women and s’cathamiya groups like Black Mambazo. And there was all kinds of rural ethnic music because everybody was an immigrant, so there was major, major musical activity. I think apartheid put a big nail in the coffin, but in the age that we are living in, like socio-political, socio-economic issues are more important, so we’ve lost all the neighbourhoods and places where musicians and artists could hone their skills. There’s no place to play, you can’t take a person anywhere, even when they come and visit and I don’t know how that happened, but you can’t have a country that loves music so much and has so many talented musicians, and not have anywhere to play or anywhere to see music because then how are they going to grow?
How do you encourage young musicians to find their own voice or style? There’s so much derivative music our there because of the way culture gets past down the radio waves and the big monopolies overseas tend to drive their stuff the hardest and that becomes the norm. How do you inspire people to pursue their own original sounds?
Nobody is original. Everybody is an offshoot from their environment. We all learn from other people. Don’t you think?
I suppose so…
If you’re interpreting something, you have to be passionate about it. And also you have to be honest with yourself because if you’re like fifteen, sixteen, seventeen and nobody has told you that you can play or you can sing, it means that you’re not in the loop. But also people should remember that there are different disciplines surrounding music, there’s sound engineering, entertainment law, road managers, managers, lighting, there’s all kinds of stuff. If you’re not talented you should know, you can’t be in music just because you love it. It’s an art and it needs skill. But it also needs natural talent so people have to be honest with themselves. There are no real formulas. Be passionate, study your craft and you’ll get somewhere and if you’re not in it for the glamour, I think you’ll go very far.