The Philadelphia Tribune
By Pheralyn Dove
The clarion cry of Hugh Masekela’s trumpet is still insistent, still emphatic. The message he carries through his music resounds as relevant today as it did more than 40 years ago when he began to receive international recognition as a leading voice hailing from South Africa, a land where the majority of the inhabitants were oppressed by the cruel and inhumane system of apartheid.
The trumpet master was in Philadelphia on Friday night as part of the Annenberg Center’s “African Roots Series.” Masekela, who celebrated his 71st birthday this year, sang, danced and played the flugelhorn, as well as an array of African percussion instruments. He was joined by a stellar band of musicians. The sextet featured Randall Skippers on keyboards, Cameron John Ward on guitar, Abednigo “Fana” Zulu on bass, Francis Maaneh Fuster on African percussion and Lee-Roy Sauls on trap drums.
Exuberance flowed from the stage and enveloped the audience at the Zellerbach, which filled the theater’s capacity, including all the seats in the balcony. Rhythmic, buoyant and melodic, the Masekela Sextet told stories, serenaded with ballads, and pierced the air with freedom songs, including the incredibly moving tribute to South Africa’s miners, “Coal Train.” Masekela doubled as teacher and entertainer. He elicited laughter with his nimble, sensuous and suggestive dance moves. He showed a serious side of his nature, dedicating the show to oppressed people the world over and people affected by horrific natural disasters, wars and strife.
The name Hugh Masekela is usually synonymous with the title “activist.” Yet during an interview following the concert, Masekela refuted the moniker, insisting that he was first and foremost a musician.
“I don’t think of myself as an activist,” he said. “I came from an internationally oppressed people. I grew up in a society that was always at odds with the establishment. I grew up in an environment that was characterized by boycotts, strikes, police brutality and murder. The greater percentage of the music I play comes from those people. I could never have had the life I have were it not for those people. So no, I don’t categorize myself as an activist. I’m just a child of a people who are still struggling — even today.”
Masekela’s sentiments were also expressed during a pre-show question and answer session that was moderated by Tracy Broyles, executive director of Spiral Q Puppet Theater. His response to the question of liberation for Africans during this current era of globalization was, “Globalization started long before slavery. Greed is the basic tenet of globalization. The right wing never sleeps. They work twice as hard to make sure the status quo never changes. Business is more important to them than human rights.”
According to Masekela, the end of Apartheid did not mark the end of the oppression of the indigenous African people. “The majority of the population only got the right to vote and a lack of harassment from the police. But any further changes would be bad for business. Same like here in the United States — the fruits of the Civil Rights Movement are very minimal.”
Magically, Masekela and his band were able to convey all of this information through the music. All of the instrumentalists received several standing ovations during sterling solo performances, and were called back for an encore. The finale was a performance of Masekela’s 1968 international hit, “Grazing in the Grass,” a recording that sold more than four million copies.
Molefi Asante, author of “Afrocentricity” and an African studies professor at Temple University said, “The performance was magnificent. It was reminiscent of a time when the music brought us together and taught us the lessons of our ancestors. Hugh Masekela was in his grandeur tonight.”
Fiber artist Betty Leacraft agreed with Asante’s observations. “I remember back in the ‘60s when ‘Grazing in the Grass’ first hit the airwaves. So it was just wonderful seeing him at this mature stage and still so full of spirit and movement.”