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Trumpeting His Love for SA Languages

Times Live
Thekiso Anthony Lefifi

Photograph by GARY VAN WYK
Photograph by GARY VAN WYK

Hugh Masekela was terrified of losing his ability to speak South African languages during his 30 years in exile.

The legendary trumpeter, one of three musicians featured in the 21 Icons South Africa project, left the country shortly after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 to study music in the UK and at the Manhattan School of Music in New York.

He received much assistance from another South African musical icon, the late Miriam Makeba, who was already living in the US. She introduced the then 21-year-old to international stars such as Harry Belafonte, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.

Much earlier, as a schoolboy, his band was given a trumpet by the legendary jazz trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong.

“I was already crazy about Louis Armstrong. We sang all his songs,” said Masekela.

“Trevor Huddleston, who had been the school chaplain, met Armstrong and told him about the band, and Armstrong sent us his trumpet and we became famous here in South Africa. We even appeared on the cover of Farmer’s Weekly – ‘Black Boys get Louis’ Trumpet’.”

Stories such as these mask the pain of exile, but in a short film to be screened on SABC3 tonight at 6.57pm, “Bra Hugh”, as he is affectionately known, describes his fear of losing his ability to speak South African languages.

“I used to have a place in Central Park where I would go to talk to my imaginary friends. I was terrified that I was going to lose my language. So I would go there and I would start to speak in Sotho first, and I would change from that to Zulu and then to Xhosa, and then I would go into tsotsi Afrikaans.”

He knew that he would be able to come home when fellow icon Nelson Mandela was finally released.

In 1991, Masekela launched his first tour of South Africa, which was sold out. Since then he has made Johannesburg his home.

This weekend he launched a national tour of townships and rural areas, the Hugh Masekela Heritage Festival.

The two-time Grammy nominee is tired of seeing core fans travel from far to see him perform. This time he wants to go to them – “just like I used to in the olden days”.

Although the tour is billed as a heritage festival, the Stimela singer says the event is not about heritage month. In fact, he is perturbed that South Africans try to embrace their heritage on only one day of the year.

He fears that parents will one day not able to answer their children’s questions about their heritage and culture.

“They [parents] will say: ‘Once upon a time we were Africans,'” he warned.

Masekela’s portrait by photographer Adrian Steirn is published in the R16 edition of the Sunday Times today.

It was shot in a public park near Masekela’s home in Bryanston, Johannesburg, and plays on the musician’s smash hit Grazing in the Grass. Released in 1968, it sold more than four million copies worldwide.

Healing Our Heritage

Photograph by Gallo/Foto24

Destiny Man
Gwen Podbrey

Photograph by Gallo/Foto24

Jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela may be a global icon, but his heart remains firmly in Mzansi – and he’s looking to restore its cultural identity.

At 74, Bra Hugh shows no signs of slowing down or resting on his laurels. Far from it. Indeed, he’s involved in several projects – recording, performing and writing – while preparing for the Hugh Masekela Heritage Festival, which takes place on Saturday, 28 September at the Elkah Stadium in the Soweto Cricket Oval and includes appearances by Thandiswa Mazwai, Mi Casa, Jeremy Loops, Desmond & the Tutus, Pu2ma, Phuzekhemisi and Khaya Mahlangu. It’s backed by Assupol, Soweto TV and Jozi FM.

It’s a fitting event for a man who’s done more than any other local musician to put South Africa and its music on the global map, and who’s revered internationally not only for his unique style and his flawless technique, but also for his numerous compositions, his professionalism and – above all – his utter commitment to his art.

He’s also acclaimed for his remarkable versatility: this is a trumpeter who’s as much at ease performing laid-back, Thirties and Forties Cole Porter and Gershwin with his long-time friend, pianist Larry Willis (the two released a box set last year titled Friends, which is set to become a classic) as he is rocking up a storm at a live gig, spending many hours in the recording studio, helping to showcase other artists or attending to releases under his own label.

The upcoming heritage festival, he says, is something he’s long wanted: not to blow his own trumpet (though he’ll certainly be doing that too!), but to have a platform in the heart of SA’s best-known township to bring authentic South African music and artists to the people. “When I was growing up, music was an integral part of the townships,” he says. “We played and heard it all day. Music surrounded us at all times. On weekends there were brass bands playing and marching, kids chanting songs in the street and singing groups on every corner. We had no TV or other entertainment – music was our way of life. If someone was getting married, there’d be a white flag attached to the house and the choir would practise for days leading up to the event.

“Today, that’s all disappeared. People in the townships – particularly the youth – have completely lost that element. And with it, they’ve lost a huge part of both who they were and who they are. Kids have no idea of their history, of what their mothers and fathers and neighbours went through, or the role music played in binding communities together and helping people survive the years of oppression. They’re listening to other music, by other artists in genres that aren’t part of township culture, and sung in English. I fear the day when our young people say: ‘They tell us we used to be Africans once.’

“What I’m trying to do is restore pride in their heritage, in their ethnic identity, in their language and in their artists. So the festival is a good platform for that.”

He’s excited about the surge of explosive young talent in the country, and while he doesn’t regard himself as a mentor – rather as a fellow artist who happens to have a lot more experience and exposure, and who loves collaborating – he says he sees and hears daily proof of Mzansi artists who can ignite a flame of cultural revival that will burn for generations to come.

He’s also turned to stage musicals as another format for realising his cultural vision. His musical, Songs of Migration – written and directed by James Ngcobo and featuring stupendous diva Sibongile Khumalo – drew on Bra Hugh’s own iconic compositions (Stimela, Languta) work, as well as some of the most poignant and powerful traditional songs ever to emanate from South Africa’s dispossessed, divided and disinherited communities. The show was highly successful, with lengthy runs in Johannesburg, as well as performances in Cape Town and a tour to Europe. He’s aiming to revive the show, as well as do others reflecting the legacies of the Manhattan Brothers, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba.

Though he has no plans to retire anytime soon, Bra Hugh’s mindful of the need to document his career and his own remarkable journey, from shebeen-born Alexandra urchin to celebrated jazz maestro on the stages of Europe, Asia and the rest of Africa. It’s a journey that’s included wild, bohemian living, artistic and personal bonds with some of the greatest names in music, marital upheavals, personal heartbreak, substance addiction, rehabilitation and – above all – a passion for living, crying, laughing and uplifting through his instrument. His autobiography, Still Grazing, covered his life to the point where he returned from his years of exile to post-liberation South Africa. He’s now busy revising and extending it.

Then, of course, his extremely busy international touring schedule sees him spending much of the year abroad. And his recording work continues: his latest release, Playing @ Work, has been ecstatically received – and he has many more in the pipeline.

Anyone who’s watched Bra Hugh on stage knows why he’s considered one of the world’s greatest live performers: consummately professional, yet warm, relaxed and utterly unpretentious, he has audiences spellbound. His astonishing energy, vibrancy and discipline – as well as his superb group – take both music and audience to a state of near-hypnotic power. Yet for all the excitement, he’s in complete control of everything happening both on stage and in the audience. It’s a level of authority and confidence very few artists anywhere in the world can match.

Don’t miss his festival this coming weekend. It’s one of the most appropriate ways there could be of celebrating both SA’s heritage, and one of its greatest artists.

Working to Preserve the Heritage of South Africa

The Boston Globe
Siddhartha Mitter

Photograph by Kevork Djansezian for Getty Images
Photograph by Kevork Djansezian for Getty Images

He turned 74 a few days ago, and Hugh Masekela — the South African trumpeter, flugelhorn player, singer, jazz pioneer, folk music reviver, cultural activist, master entertainer, and all-around irrepressible spirit — is fairly bursting with energy.

At the helm of his working band of the last four years, a sharp crew of Cape Town players less than half his age, he’s on his annual tour snaking through the United States and playing music from “Jabulani,” his latest international release; “Playing @ Work,” a brand-new double album as yet only available in South Africa; and gems from his 43-album-deep vault of jazz, soul, South African funk, Xhosa folklore, Afrobeat, maybe the odd Bob Dylan cover, and who knows what else. Masekela comes to Berklee Performance Center on Sunday.

His verve, Masekela says on the phone from a tour stop in central Pennsylvania, comes first and foremost from the privilege of performing. “How many occupations do you know where you can engage 2,000 people and have everyone feeling?”

More prosaically, Masekela, who kicked a bad alcohol habit 15 years ago, says he draws force from his daily practice of tai chi, in the manner of the millions of Chinese who practice the discipline into old age. “When they are really old, they are still upright and calm,” Masekela says. “When you’re upright and calm, you’re like an antenna.”

Those who recall Masekela from his Afro-funk days of the 1970s, his “Grazin’ in the Grass” hit of 1968, or for that matter his early career on the South African jazz scene with the likes of Abdullah Ibrahim (then called Dollar Brand) in the late 1950s, may find that today, Masekela’s solos may be just a little briefer than in the past, his hearty singing voice just a shade less lusty. The years will do that.

But that antenna has never been more sharply tuned. Masekela is collaborating with an armada of young artists, popping up onstage with everyone from New York Ugandan-American singer Somi to Johannesburg art-rockers BLK JKS. He launched last year a production house and label to develop South African talent across genres. And despite performing and touring widely, he’s also, he says, constantly reading.

“I’m reading everything I can get my eyes on, except maybe bathroom graffiti,” he says. “From junk to Dostoyevsky.” His range is broad but his choices are still pointed. His current tour-bus fare is a tome titled “New Babylon, New Niniveh,” a scholarly study of conditions in the late 19th century in the Witwatersrand — the mining area where Johannesburg sits and where South African industry took shape.

“Johannesburg was built, for lack of a better word, by pirates and greed,” he says, summarizing his observations from the book. “And that set the standard for urban life in South Africa, the values. Acquisition is still the greatest thing that every South African is after.”

These days, Masekela takes every opportunity to advocate for the arts and initiatives to preserve cultural heritage in the face of unrelenting materialism — in South Africa and elsewhere. He views what he calls “heritage restoration” as a global priority that is especially crucial on the African continent, where museums and arts institutions are poor and have been low public priorities, and where each generation that passes away takes with it knowledge that can’t be replaced.

“Today’s aged have that last oral information,” he says. “And they are sitting in the backyard, in the shade somewhere, and we are not letting them share it with us.”

Masekela says he is working with several colleagues on plans to establish academies that will not only present and teach but also conduct research into African music, visual art, architecture, and design.

In a sense, the vision is a natural expansion of Masekela’s own creative investment in South African arts since his return to the country in 1990. He had left in 1960 after the Sharpeville Massacre signaled the hardening of the apartheid regime, and returned to a country in transition, with Nelson Mandela newly freed.

In the years since then, his music has increasingly drawn on South Africa’s mbaqanga funk style and new, jazzy interpretations of traditional themes. Many songs on “Jabulani,” some in Xhosa and others in English, tell stories of the ups and downs of marriage, ringing like jaunty, dance-ready funk fables.

In the end, however, trying to put categories on Masekela’s music is a fool’s errand. The man is far too eclectic. His new South African release includes a version of “Soweto Blues,” a classic he wrote long ago for ex-wife Miriam Makeba but had not recorded himself. It also features a cover of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

The impression emerges that Masekela’s borderless vision and creative instincts, though honed by decades in exile, have blossomed with each year since his return to his home country, like a plant whose branches grow out at the same time as its roots.

“The greatest privilege I had in life was to be able to go back to South Africa,” he says. “I can immerse myself in our heritage and ancestry, and I have access to the world as a free citizen. I’m just enjoying being alive as a free individual and having access to the whole world.”

Fresh Because He’s Fascinated

hm14

Jazz Great Hugh Masekela, Fresh Because He’s Fascinated

npr music
Michel Martin

“I was a good boy,” South African jazz legend Hugh Masekela assures NPR’s Michel Martin. But still, he says, “as a kid, I was whipped on a slow day at least three times.”

Eventually, Masekela told his chaplain, “If I can get a trumpet, Father, I won’t bother anybody.”

His wish came true.

Within a few years, Louis Armstrong, who’d heard of a talented kid in South Africa, sent the boy his own trumpet. Photographer Alf Kumalo captured Masekela’s joy at receiving that gift in an iconic photograph. But Masekela says he has always hated that image: “I lost a girlfriend through that picture,” he says. “You know, we were very cool at that time, so that was a very uncool picture.” She told him she couldn’t be seen with him.

“Barefootin’ with your pants rolled up — I mean, how country can you get?” he says.

A few years later, the brutality of apartheid made it impossible for Masekela to stay in South Africa. A former girlfriend, singer and activist Miriam Makeba, encouraged him to go to America. “Forget about London,” he says she told him, “this is the place to be.”

Masekela recalls how Makeba “blew the States away” and “was on first-name basis with everybody.” She and Harry Belafonte soon gave Masekela a scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music. And he worked part time in Belafonte’s band, because, Masekela says, the older musician warned him, “They ain’t gonna give you no money, you gotta work!”

Masekela had to come to terms with the realization that he might never go home. But what he found most difficult to deal with was the cold. “That really made me homesick,” he says, recalling his first experience of snow. He sent a picture of himself to his mother, “and I said, ‘I’m not smiling, I’m grimacing.’ ” Masekela was not sad, though.

“It was the greatest time for music in the States,” he recalls. “I was surrounded by so much beauty, and so much generosity, and so much joy. It was a new world. It was the world I wanted to live in when I heard records when I was a small kid.”

Both darlings of the South African music scene, Masekela and Makeba had a brief, turbulent marriage during those years. “Our personal relationship was like not even hills, [but] mountains and valleys,” he points out, “but Miriam Makeba was the epitome, the very portrait of what Africa was all about. … She was the most generous person I have ever known.”

He brushes off the idea that their marriage was a nightmare. “When you grow up in the township, what me and Miriam went through overseas is very light stuff,” he says.

Masekela has spoken candidly in the past about his drug and alcohol use. He points to South Africa’s history as a reason why he got addicted. “When I grew up, liquor was illegal for African people in South Africa,” so they set up speakeasies — or shebeens. “Drunkenness to a great extent was a form of defiance,” he says. He started drinking when he was 13 and was 58 when he finally stopped.

Masekela points out that he didn’t get “sober,” he just stopped killing himself. “You shouldn’t stop enjoying life,” he says, “but you just have to stop beating yourself up.”

Now 74, Masekela says “I feel like I’m just beginning.”

He credits his endless fascination with keeping his music fresh. “If music was the devil, I would need an exorcist. That’s how obsessed and possessed I am with it, and I have always been.”

And to all young talented musicians who might feel the same, he has this advice: “Whatever you go into, you have to go in there to be the best. … It’s all about passion and honesty and hard work. It might look glamorous, but it takes a lot of hard work.”

Bra Hugh and The Big Issue

Photograph by Brett Rubin; Cover Art courtesy of The Big Issue

SA’s top talent join the fight against poverty and unemployment: Top names in South African literature, photography, poetry, illustration and cartooning support The Big Issue vendors

The Big Issue
Melany Bendix

Photograph by Brett Rubin; Cover Art courtesy of The Big Issue

Sixty of South Africa’s top talent have joined the fight against poverty and unemployment this festive season by contributing work pro bono to The Big Issue’s 2012/2013 Collector’s Edition.

All 60 contributors submitted work under the theme of “My Big Issue” to create the bumper 92-page edition, printed on high quality paper and featuring the legendary flugelhornist, singer and defiant political voice Hugh Masekela on the cover.

The weighty edition boasts a large number of the “who’s who” in South African literary, cartooning, photography, illustration and poetry circles, including Nadine Gordimer, Max du Preez, Ben Trovato, Zapiro, David Bullard, Jodi Bieber, Antjie Krog, Terry Crawford-Browne, Eusebius McKaiser and Damon Galgut, to name but a few.

It also features a full complement of up-and-coming talent, such as Shubnum Khan, Hasan and Husain Essop, Leonie Joubert, Osiame Molefe, Jen Thorpe, David wa Maahlamela and Dorothy Black (full list below).

“For the third year running we’ve been overwhelmed and very humbled by the incredible support we’ve had from South Africa’s best talent. Every one of them gave selflessly of their time and talent to make this special edition possible,” said Melany Bendix, editor of The Big Issue.

The Big Issue is usually sold for R20 with vendors earning 50% of the cover price. By increasing the cover price to R30 for the 2012/2013 Collector’s Edition, vendors earn R15 for every copy sold and are thereby able earn their own year-end bonus.

“Without the commitment of the 60 esteemed contributors, the 2012/2013 Collector’s Edition would not have been possible and our 350-plus vendors would not have been able to earn their own year-end bonus. It would have been a very bleak Christmas otherwise, and we thank all contributors for their support.”

In addition to earning more per magazine sold, Bendix also expects vendors to sell far more copies than usual.

“Both the 2010 and 2011 Collector’s Editions, featuring Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela with 33 and 50 contributors respectively, were record sellers. As such, we are confident the 2012/2013 edition featuring yet another South African icon and even more contributors will also be a hit.”

The 2012/2013 Collector’s Edition will be available from vendors at pitches throughout the Cape Town CBD and the greater Cape Town area from November 23 to January 25, 2013 — or while stocks last.

Readers outside Cape Town won’t, however, be left out of the loop. “We had a large number of requests for the Collector’s Edition from other provinces and abroad in 2010 and 2011, so this year we have a plan to get it to all corners of South Africa, and the globe in a way which will still benefit our vendors,” said Bendix. “Watch this space for the big announcement in early December.”

2012/2013 Collector’s Edition contributors A-Z:

Africartoons, Diane Awerbuck, Jodi Bieber, Dorothy Black, Sebastian Borckenhagen, Jason Bronkhorst, David Bullard, Christopher Clark, Terry Crawford-Browne, Araminta de Clermont, Mandy de Waal, Max du Preez, Hasan Essop, Husain Essop, Retha Ferguson, Damon Galgut, Brenton Geach, Dave Gomersall, Nadine Gordimer, Keith Gottschalk, Joanne Hichens, Nadine Hutton, Karen Jayes, Natasha Johnson, Leonie Joubert, Shubnum Khan, Rustum Kozain, Antije Krog, Theo Krynauw, Duncan Larkin, Nomusa Makhubu, Hugh Masekela, Eusebius Mckaiser, Eric Miller, Osiame Molefe, croc E moses, Jeremy Nell, Justin Plunkett, Lindeka Qampi, Karin Retief, Sergio Rinquest, Beverly Rycroft, Brett Rubin, Justin Sholk, Lisa Skinner, Jacques Strauss, Brent Stirton, Simon Tamblyn, Lisa Thompson, Gavin Thomson, Jen Thorpe, Andre Trantraal, Nathan Trantraal, Ben Trovato, Gerhard van Wyk, Michaela Verity, David wa Maahlamela, James Whyle, ZA News, Zapiro

About The Big Issue:

The Big Issue creates jobs for unemployed, homeless and socially marginalised adults. As one of the longest running and most sustainable NGOs, The Big Issue has helped more than 17 000 vendors to earn a combined income of approximately R19 million since 1996 and assisted many to move into formal employment and further education (for more information on the social development and job creation programme, visit www.bigissue.org.za)

Hugh Masekela & Friends makes Africa Channel Debut

hm-dvd-group

Hugh Masekela & Friends Africa Channel Debut

The Africa Channel

A celebration of the South African music legend, composer and bandleader Hugh Masekela and his extensive career, Hugh Masekela & Friends makes its Africa Channel debut this June. Filmed the The Teatro at Montecasino in Johannesburg, ‘Bra Hugh’ is joined on stage by various friends and collaborators including multi-award winning singer, songwriter and recording artist, Thandiswa Mazwai and former Sankomota leader and gospel soloist, Tsepo Tshola. The talented musicians of Masekela’s new band join them on stage, featuring Erick Paliani on guitar, Lee-Roy Sauls on drums, Fana Zulu on bass and Randal Skippers on keyboards.

The joyous event brings together South Africa’s finest new and well-loved musical talent for two hours of not-to-be-missed musical performances, including jazz, Afrobeat and modern kwaito.

Watch Hugh Masekela & Friends on The Africa Channel at 2pm on 29 July 2012.

For information on purchasing the Hugh Masekela & Friends DVD contact josh@88.co.za

Hugh and Sal Masekela

Image: alekesamthemovie.com

Miss Ntertainment
Nadia Neophytou

There is a lot we know about Hugh Masekela’s story – about exile, about excess, about love, about jazz – much of which has been told through his excellent biography Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela. But there is still much more to be heard and understood, which is why I am looking forward to seeing the film Alekesam debut at the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival.

It’s about the respected musician and how his exile from South Africa for over 30 years as a result of Apartheid impacted his relationship with his son, Selema Mabena Masekela, who we have come to know on TV as ‘Sal’. Masekela’s time in America saw him earn a number one hit with Grazin’ In The Grass in 1968, and Sal was born a few years later in 1971. Masekela left America – and Sal – to return to South Africa, where he would continue to play an important role in the struggle for freedom. 39 years later, the two confront the implications of the time apart that separated them, and the music that helped bring them back together.

Photograph: alekesamthemovie.com
Photograph: alekesamthemovie.com

Director Jason Bergh has said the film happened by a “beautiful, perfectly-timed accident,” in that it was supposed to be a short promo for Sal’s new album. He says it grew to become the most important project he’s ever worked on – the story of a father exiled from his country, and a son exiled from his father.

Alekesam screens at the TriBeCa Film Festival from the 19th to the 29th of April. To download a single from the soundtrack, visit here.

Images: alekesamthemovie.com

Hugh Masekela is Now Taking the Literary Route

Photograph by Mabuti Kali

Sowetan
By Edward Tsumele

Photograph by Mabuti Kali

World-renowned South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who has just returned from a very successful tour of Europe, Ghana and Nigeria, is going literary.

Masekela, whose latest album Jabulani rates as one of his best, will publish a novel just in time for next Easter.

He told Sowetan yesterday it took him 13 years to complete the novel, titled Honky.

“This is going to be a Johannesburg thriller that readers will not be able to put down,” Masekela said.

“Honky is about a successful black musician just back from exile. He likes performing around the country. Then one day, while returning from a performance, he gives a white woman a lift to her home in Killarney. The woman is found dead the next day. The person who was last seen with her is Honky, whose real name is Sir Holonko. For now that is all I am prepared to say about Honky,” he said.

A few years ago he published a controversial biography , but Honky is his first work of fiction.

He said that there would be more novels from him in the future.

The trumpeter’s musical repertoire is diverse and he is comfortable playing jazz, original compositions as well as African folk music.

He said his recent tour of Europe took him to the UK, Germany and Spain.

Having played music for over half a century, taking him from Sophiatown’s cultural melting pot to England, the US, Nigeria, Ghana and Guinea, Masekela is probably our foremost South African musical export. And he is increasingly in demand overseas.

Asked about whether he would consider slowing down, Masekela said: “Music is my life. I cannot retire from myself. This is my job. I have always been involved with music in one form or another. I have never worked for anyone in my life.

“Well, there are other things that I am involved in such as HIV education and I am also involved in heritage restoration.

“We South Africans are fast losing our culture and heritage as a people. One day, with the way young people are losing touch with where we come from, we should not be surprised when our children say: ‘We used to be African. It is so tragic that it’s not funny the way and manner in which our rich culture is being forgotten’,” Masekela lamented.

See more articles about Hugh Masekela

Hugh Masekela: His Rock and Roll Redemption

hm_rollingstone

Rolling Stone
By Miles Keylock

“Pussy is the gateway to the earth. But we disrespect it… What guy hasn’t treated his lady badly by fucking around, huh?” Hugh Masekela’s eyes dart out into space, challenging, daring his audience to agree. Silence. Then a tentative show of hands from his entourage. “Huh-huh-huh!” His baritone chuckle cascades from deep in his diaphragm. The 72-year-old Bra is shooting the breeze, taking five between laying down some choice new jazz joints in his studio. This kind of call-and-response is typical of Masekela. “Jazz” isn’t some suave Wynton Marsalis head trip into classical museum music. It’s worshipping at the altar of pussy. It’s the gateway to heaven. It’s reanimating those old-time speakeasy swearwords: backdoor men and badass women baring “Body & Soul” in ecstatic ejaculation. All that jazz. It’s a celebration of living life to the fullest. It’s giving it horns, dipping your instrument directly into the gut, bypassing any objective intellectual cool and mainlining unspeakable, unsavoury states – love’s fires, rage’s boiling mud, shame’s hot cauldron – into something valuable, intrinsically beautiful, danceable. For Bra Hugh jazz is rock’n’roll.

One of the last survivors of South Africa’s Golden Age of Jazz, Masekela’s been typecast as a grandfather figure. To see him this way is to misunderstand his legacy. Forget “Grazing in the Grass”. Try carnivorous cocaine nights, compulsive copulation, countless hangovers, hangers-on, haters, lovers, years of exile, fear, self-loathing and yes, eventually, redemption.

His music carries the DNA of a life lived over the top and constantly on the edge. Over the past six decades he’s been there, done that. In New York in the 1960s he jived with Miles Davis, met Malcolm X and befriended Marvin Gaye. He jammed with reggae prophet Bob Marley in Jamaica, nightclub-crawled with guitar god Jimi Hendrix and freebased with hedonistic funk superstar Sly Stone in Los Angeles. He got bust. The FBI had him under surveillance. He didn’t give a shit. He told judges to get lost and press reporters where to get off. His career bummed out. He reinvented himself and invented “World Music”. He got bust again. He blew off the big time and the Big Apple. He holed up with Fela Kuti and rocked the high life with the Hedzoleh Sounds in Lagos. He gave boxing guru Don King shit about Ali and Foreman’s Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire. He gave himself even more shit by continuing to get hooked up in all kinds of crazy capers, including gold-and-grass smuggling in Liberia and staying on the shit for decades.

But what makes Bra Hugh a real rock star is that he’s survived. He’s defied rock’n’roll’s death-trip prescript: rocked against the odds; rolled with the existential shriek, the oppressive cacophony, the repressed yowl and the fear-turned-fury that threatened to kill him. He understands it. He’s lived it. But more importantly, he’s re-heard it as music: one harmonious, affirmative rupture.

“I’m lucky to be sitting here and talking to you about it,” says Masekela. “The saddest thing that happened to South Africa is that it was illegal for Africans to drink liquor in this country until 1961. So drinking became not only a form of resistance, but also a form of defiance.”

This is an excerpt of the cover story from the December 2011 issue of Rolling Stone South Africa. To read the rest of this story, subscribe to the magazine here.

Trumpet grooves from Masekela’s homeland

Africa Review
By Billie Odidi

PHOTO: COURTESY OF ROCK PAPER SCISSOR
PHOTO: COURTESY OF ROCK PAPER SCISSOR

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.