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.