By Billie Odidi
Born out of South Africa’s apartheid system, Hugh Masekela was an early entrant into the world of trumpets and drumbeats; benefiting immensely from some of the best musical experiences of the world.
His first trumpet was a gift from Louis Armstrong; Harry Belafonte facilitated his flight to New York where Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis hosted him.
When he recently sprinted onto the stage in Nairobi, Masekela, who turned 72 in April, left many wowed. “My wife and I practice the Chinese martial arts tai chi every day and I swim and laugh a lot,” he said, when asked about his vigorous 2-hour show, accompanied by a largely youthful band.
Ever the entertainer, the witty trumpeter, vocalist and songwriter regaled the crowd with humorous tales in between performances.
He recalled the apartheid laws in South Africa that prohibited Africans from consuming alcohol and how he grew up in a drinking den watching his grandmother play hide and seek with the police. “I didn’t turn out too badly for a boy born in a shebeen,” Masekela joked while performing Khauleza, a song originally by another South African great Dorothy Masuka.
Stimela the protest note
It is by hearing tales of cruelty and measly pay from migrant labourers who used to drink in his grandmother’s shebeen that he wrote the powerful protest song Stimela. The 1972 classic which begins with Masekela mimicking the steam engine that carried forced labour to Johannesburg still arouses strong passions.
Though generally categorised as a jazz artiste, Masekela’s music is a whole lot more, reflecting the wide diversity of his experiences, including 30 years in exile. There are distinct influences from traditional mbaqanga of South Africa, West African Afrobeat and even a trace of Congolese rumba. “ My music is a potpourri of the music of the African diaspora,” he says, “ I am the sum total of my influences.”
The swinging groove of Makoti (originally recorded by Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks in 1959), from the latest album Jabulani,is irresistible. The album, which reunites him with long-time producer Don Laka, is a collection of South African folk wedding songs inspired by the township ceremonies of yesteryear.