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These nights of exhilarating live performance are reinventing music

The Guardian
By Simon Jenkins

The last time I heard the trumpeter and singer Hugh Masekela was at a New Year’s Eve party in 1990 on the slopes of Table Mountain. Nelson Mandela had recently been released and Masekela had returned from exile.

The hot night air blew in from False Bay, and conversation crackled with nervous anticipation of the year ahead. From the windows of the Cape Dutch Menell house at Glendirk, Masekela’s mournful flugelhorn wailed across the mountainside. It was not a cry of future liberation but an echo of past sadness and oppression. It was utterly beautiful.

That horn was no less beautiful on Wednesday night. At London’s Barbican the diminutive Masekela, now 68, picked up the entire London Symphony Orchestra, swirled it above his head and rammed it full of electricity. “It is not true,” he cried in delight, “that symphony orchestras can’t swing.” The concrete acres and bleak empty decks of the Barbican receded and the sandy-coloured wooden walls of the hall took on the shades of the bushveldt.

From student hostels, embassies and enclaves had emerged the capital’s African diaspora. They filled the hall, shouting, clapping, singing and weeping for their hero, Masekela. As he played the great anthem Morija-Maseru, and called out the names of Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia and Angola, cries of ecstatic recognition broke out from the audience. However briefly, he had brought today’s exiles home.

Masekela’s enterprise with the LSO was the brainchild of its remarkable director, Kathryn McDowell. She had not only to marry a jazz trumpeter to a symphony orchestra, which is no longer new, but also rearrange Masekela’s music for classical players, have them play with appropriate rhythm, and make use of the local St Luke’s community choir. Small wonder Masekela described the operation as “a hazardous trip” that had left him “scared stiff”.

He struck gold in his orchestral arranger, Jason Yarde, a Rastafarian Guyanan with a remarkable talent both as saxophonist and composer. In return, Masekela performed the premiere of Yarde’s concerto for trumpet and orchestra, an uplifting piece entitled All Souls Seek Joy. Yarde is a musician to watch. In his work, “world” meets jazz meets crossover to the point where such terms mean nothing. We are left with just glorious music.
Masekela, though an orthodox jazz trumpeter, embodies this phenomenon.

The son of educated parents, he learned the piano at school, but when he saw a film in which Kirk Douglas played Bix Beiderbecke he knew the trumpet was for him. “Discovered” by the anti-apartheid priest Trevor Huddleston, he was given an instrument and, still in his teens, formed the first African jazz band to record an album. After Sharpeville, Masekela left South Africa and went to London’s Guildhall school of music and then to study in Manhattan, fortunate in the patronage of such musicians as Menuhin, Dankworth, Belafonte and Gillespie. He briefly married his fellow emigre Miriam Makeba, and lived in various African countries before, on Mandela’s release in 1990, feeling able to return home.

Masekela looks like a mischievous but dignified imp. On Wednesday he stood in front of the august LSO, erect and immaculate in a black poncho, gently swaying to the rhythm in stylish contrast to the gauche jitterbugging of the young French conductor, Francois-Xavier Roth. He played old favourites Grazing in the Grass, Lizzy and Nomalizo, one of the few South African songs about love rather than oppression. “But when we do love,” remarked Masekela, “it is lethal: every song means babies.”

His signature piece remains Stimela, the Rock Island Line of the veldt. With a softly blown horn and a gravelly voice, Masekela tells of a steam train carrying migrant workers to the mines, the music elevated by Yarde into a crescendo of orchestral sound. Masekela dominated the stage, rendering the LSO little more than a backing group. He danced, swayed and strutted, imitating the migrants, the train driver, the conductor, the engine and even its whistle all in one. The audience rose from their seats and roared.

A South African Great, Playing ‘To Get Well’

By Weekend Edition

PHOTO: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty. Hugh Masekela performs on the fluegelhorn in Kenya in 2007. He says he was inspired by a recording of Miles Davis playing the instrument. "He got that fat, dark, rich tone," Masekela says. "And I decided to go buy a fluegelhorn right there and then. I haven't blown the trumpet since."
PHOTO: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty. Hugh Masekela performs on the fluegelhorn in Kenya in 2007. He says he was inspired by a recording of Miles Davis playing the instrument. “He got that fat, dark, rich tone,” Masekela says. “And I decided to go buy a fluegelhorn right there and then. I haven’t blown the trumpet since.”

April 25, 2009 – Trumpeter Hugh Masekela turned 70 earlier this month. But there are no hints of retirement in his music.

Masekela is a jazz giant who was born in South Africa. He fled apartheid, settling in London and later Los Angeles, and then returned to South Africa after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. He is just finishing up a U.S. tour, complete with the release of his 35th album as a bandleader. It’s called Phola — a term that means “to get well” or “to heal.”

“Africa has been troubled for a long time — well, the world has been troubled ever since I was born,” Masekela says. “But I think in the last 20 years, the troubles in Africa have escalated to a point where I think it needs to heal. And I personally, I think, have settled down in my life, and I’ve relaxed and healed.”

In an interview with Scott Simon, Masekela says he has recorded several “songs of concern” on Phola. In “Bring It Back Home,” he sings, “When they get inside the fort / they don’t need you anymore / They don’t return your phone calls / They got soldiers on every door / who will make you to go away.”

“When people campaign for positions, they promise people all kinds of things,” Masekela says. “And as soon as they get into office, most administrations or administrators forget the constituencies who put them in the big seat. It’s an old political thing — I’m not preaching anything that’s new, you know? So it’s just an observation that, I guess, from time to time you have to remind people.”

Not that he would force anyone to listen to him.

“If you could force people to listen to the lyrics and take them seriously, then you’d be a dictator, just like the dictators that you’re singing about,” Masekela says.

Young Man, Meet Horn

Masekela has studied music since age 6 — when, he says, his parents signed him up for piano lessons to tear him away from the gramophone. “I lived for music since I could think,” he says.

By the time he was 13, Masekela was a talented piano player. But then he saw a certain Kirk Douglas movie — and, separately, he was confronted by his school’s chaplain, anti-apartheid activist and Archbishop Trevor Huddleston.

“He called everybody ‘creature,’ ” Masekela says. “And he said, ‘Creature, you’re always in trouble with the authorities. If you get expelled from this school, no other school will ever accept you. What do you really want to do?’ ”

“And I said, ‘Father, I’ve just seen this movie, Young Man With a Horn.’ It’s the story of Bix Beiderbecke, and Harry James was the trumpet player who played on the soundtrack. And Harry James had probably one of the most beautiful tones on the trumpet that any player ever had. And I said, ‘If you can get me a trumpet, I won’t bother anyone anymore.’ “

Huddleston secured him a trumpet and a teacher from the Johannesburg “Native” Municipal Brass Band. Two months later, Masekela says, he could tap out songs.

“And other kids were like, ‘Oh, Father, can I have a trombone, can I have a clarinet, can I have a saxophone?’ ” he says. “And soon we had the Huddleston Jazz Band.”

When Huddleston was sent into exile for his political stance, he visited the U.S.

“And I think in Rochester [N.Y.], one of the people from his brotherhood was, like, a clarinet player, [and] was a dear friend of Louis Armstrong — he loved Dixieland,” Masekela says. “And Huddleston told him about this youth band that he had started. Louis Armstrong sent us a trumpet, and we became famous overnight.”

Much of Masekela’s early life in music is actually retold on the album, in the autobiographical track “Sonnyboy.”

“I had to run away from home in order to be a musician,” Masekela says. “Because I came from a family of … my father was a health inspector; my mother was a social worker. And I was pretty smart in school. So they expected me to be some kind of academic — schoolteacher, or doctor, lawyer — and they were very disappointed when I told them I wanted to be a musician.

“And my father just lost it and kicked my behind. So I left them a note to say, ‘Hey, sorry, Dad, but this is the way I’m going.’ “

Faces Of Africa

Around the time he picked up the trumpet, Masekela first saw singer Miriam Makeba perform. A few years later, she returned to Johannesburg.

“Three years later, she was singing there with the Manhattan Brothers, and our eyes met,” Masekela says. “And we became very dear friends, and lovers. And four years later, she came to the States and had massive success. And when I came to England, she came to England and said, ‘Look, I got you a scholarship at the Manhattan School of Music with the help of Dizzy Gillespie and John Mehegan and Harry Belafonte’s going to help me to send you to school.’ “

Masekela and the late Makeba were once married, as well. Though Masekela says it was not a successful marriage, the two remained close friends.

“What I want to say, really, about Miriam is that I don’t think there is anybody who ever did for Africa what Miriam did,” he says. “Just really put the face of Africa on the map for the world. And she was just an amazing, an amazing person.”

Masekela also spoke about the state of the South African music community today. He pointed out the irony that music seemed to thrive under the state repression of apartheid.

“It’s actually a paradox that South African music became famous worldwide during apartheid,” Masekela says. “And there was major musical activity in South Africa — when I grew up, it was like the playing fields for one to hone their skills were all over.”

Masekela points out that the police state of apartheid, though intended to segregate and divide, had the benefit of enforcing security. Additionally, the South African government celebrated the accomplishments of its musicians as justification for its segregation.

“When we became free, one of the first things that we did was — we wanted to show the world that we’re not a police state anymore,” Masekela says. “So safety and security really suffered very badly. When a place is not safe at night, and there’s no security, entertainment and recreation just disappear. That is what has happened, and it’s very sad because there’s no place, really, today for musicians … to hone their skills and to develop their talents. I think it’s a great loss.”

Hugh Masekela, the South African music legend, is celebrating his 70th birthday

By Peter Biles

He will mark the occasion by performing at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

The world-renowned trumpeter and flugel horn player is a lot mellower these days.

During a break from rehearsals in Johannesburg, he is in a contemplative mood. “I’ve been calm for a while. I miss my temper, but it’s gone,” he says.

“I’m still outraged by injustice. I always will be. But I’m not wild. I’m not self-indulgent anymore. I live a very healthy life.

“Four years ago, my wife and I took up tai chi. We do it every day religiously, and that has really calmed us down. It gives me fantastic balance and energy. I also swim when I can. And I laugh a lot.”

He has been performing for well over half a century. The anti-apartheid activist, the late Archbishop Trevor Huddlestone, gave him his first trumpet when he was a teenager.

Masekela went into exile in the 1960s and did not return to South Africa until after the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990.

His latest album, Phola, which means “to heal”, reflects his new-found spirit of tranquillity.

“I’m at that point in my life where I’ve been healed of many things, including my own demons,” he says referring to his years of alcohol and drug abuse.

“It’s time to be focused on things that bring joy and healing to people.”

The Phola album, says the musician, is also “a dream and a prayer” for Africa. He remains concerned about the continuing conflict and turmoil in some parts of the continent.

“Africa needs to heal and chill. It breaks my heart to see what’s happening in Somalia, Sudan, Chad and many other places.”

Going strong

Even at 70, Masekela has lost none of his musical drive and enthusiasm – but he says this is his job.

“People think that being an artist is an occupation of fun, but it’s hard work as you can see from the rehearsals.

“Most people just see the finished product, but we go section by section, and if you want to be a good group, you have to dissect every part of the song before you present it as a whole.”

Masekela remains downbeat about music in South Africa today.

He argues that paradoxically, music flourished in the 1960s and 70s, in spite of the repression of the apartheid era.

This was because artists performed in areas where there was what he calls “a superficial security environment”. Venues were safe because there was a constant police presence.

After the dawn of democracy in 1994 however, many clubs in inner city areas of Johannesburg, like Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville, were forced to close because of crime, he says.

“It killed certain places, and music and theatre became the victims.”

Masekela says it is not easy for South Africa’s young musicians to develop their skills. But those lucky enough to be working with him can draw plenty of inspiration from this ageless jazz maestro.

How a 68-Year-Old Horn Player Makes the Ladies Scream

Rolling Stone
By Evan Serpick

At age 68, South Africa’s Hugh Masekela is still one of the most thrilling live performers around. The flugelhorn master and bandleader has been a world-music hero since the ‘60s, when he came to L.A., recorded with The Byrds and Paul Simon, played Monterey Pop, and, in 1968, had a number-one hit with “Grazing in the Grass” — one of the only instrumental tracks to reach such heights.

Rooted in African rhythms and American jazz, Masekela has maintained a cultish following through his years and his new album, Live at the Market Theater, explains why: The clarion, confident call of his horn explodes on track after track, from celebratory songs like “Grazing” to political tracks like “Mandela.” The two-disc live set from San Francisco is an excellent introduction to Masekela’s music, lacking only the joy of seeing the spry, smiling musician create it.

To celebrate the album’s release, Masekela played a show aboard a cruise ship circling Manhattan Friday night. He wowed the ecstatic crowd on extended versions of “The Boy’s Doin’ It” and “Stimela” — a hypnotic tune about African coal miners dedicated to “working people over the world.” The South African ex-pats in the crowd in particular exploded upon seeing the aging jazzman work his considerable backside to the music, making Masekela perhaps the only 68-year-old who can inspire a dozen young South African women to scream in excitement at his every move.