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.”