Songs of Migration Washington Post Interview

Jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela honors his homeland in ‘Songs of Migration’

Washington Post
Erin Williams

Photograph courtesy of The Kennedy Center
Photograph courtesy of The Kennedy Center

The journey of migrant workers to Johannesburg in Africa at the end of the 19th century is being brought to life through music by renowned trumpeter Hugh Masekela.

The 73-year-old gained fame in the 1960s with his jazz renditions of pop music favorites, including the easy-breezy hit “Grazing in the Grass.” Now, with the help of director James Ngcobo and singer Sibongile Khumalo, Masekela is presenting “Songs of Migration” at The Kennedy Center Oct. 17 through Oct. 20.

Taking a break from rehearsals in London, Masakela talked about migrating from Africa to the United States, his love for fellow South African performer Miriam Makeba and how music can transcend any language barrier.

What is it about songs that best tell the story of migrant workers?

    In South Africa, migration was caused by wars — wars and famine and conquest. People’s lands were taken away, and minerals were discovered, mostly in Johannesburg. And everybody came to Johannesburg, not just from South Africa, but from the surrounding countries — central Africa, southern Africa and eastern Africa. Mining people came from Europe, from America, from South America, and it became a very cosmopolitan migrant labor city. There’s many songs of longing for home. There’s songs of longing for loved ones. There’s songs about the difficulties of life in Johannesburg, about the sordid squalor that the miners have to work in, just like the difficulty of life in a big city…It’s choral songs. Some come from popular recordings, some come from war, some come from just folk songs — you know, love songs and songs of longing.

You were born and raised in South Africa, but it was an American that inspired you to play trumpet in the first place. How did that happen?

    It was a film [Young Man With A Horn], but it was many things because I grew up with a gramophone. I’ve been a musician since I was an infant, and I grew up by the gramophone. So by the time I got to play the trumpet, I was a walking anthology of everything that was ever recorded that came out of gramophones in South Africa…and cowboy music. We went to the movies all the time, and we listened to everybody. I wasn’t a special person, I was just obsessed with music.

You traveled abroad to further your music education and attended the Manhattan School of Music. Was it difficult being away from home?

    We have major community and family and clan support when you grow up in the townships, but to be alone in New York is one of the saddest and loneliest things, especially when you’re poor. Every student is poor, unless they come from a wealthy home. Many of us left South Africa physically, but our spirits remained there. We never thought we’d go back, so we settled in our minds that we’re going to spend the rest of our lives overseas.

You were married to Miriam Makeba for a short time and collaborated on music projects with her. Since she died in 2008, do you still think about her when you get ready to perform or create new music?

    We’ve actually toured a Miriam Makeba tribute here in Europe, and with Sibojama Theatre…we’re just going to churn out musicals and one of the musical we’re working on is Miriam Makeba’s life. Miriam Makeba is like Louis Armstrong. They just stay with you, and some people don’t die, they just live forever. And she’s one of those people.

How do you want “Songs of Migration” to be perceived?

    As artists, we want people to be turned on, but they have to have their own interpretation. There’s no way to dictate how people should perceive something. It’s a seamless show…there’s music…and stories, and different singers. I really can’t describe it, but when you see it, I think you’ll want to write again about it.