Hugh Masekela: His Rock and Roll Redemption

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.