“I lived in Liberia and Ghana and Guinea on and off, and learned many things, especially from my dear friend and brother Fela.”
That was a quote from one of Hugh Masekela’s interviews celebrating his friendship with the late Nigerian composer and pioneer of the Afro-beat genre, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who flavored much of the South African Jazz player’s music.
If Masekela, who died Tuesday had one last wish, it would be to meet Fela in heaven and sing that great number with him once again: LADY.
Masekela died battling prostate cancer.
NewsmakersNG presents you excerpts from one of Hugh Ramapolo Masekela’s memorable interviews:
Hugh Masekela: high notes from the horn of Africa
Through alcoholism and apartheid, Hugh Masekela has always made music that is resolutely cheerful.
By Ivan Hewett5:09PM BST 27 Apr 2009
In 1953, in a poor school for black children in Johannesburg, there was an encounter that would turn out to be momentous for South African music. A young chaplain named Trevor Huddlestone – who would one day be expelled for his anti-apartheid views – had got to know a 13-year-old lad in his care who was already showing a great talent for music. The boy had just seen Young Man with a Horn, in which Kirk Douglas plays a jazz trumpeter based on Bix Beiderbecke, and was desperate to try out this new instrument. Huddlestone found one, and made sure he got some lessons. The rest is now part of jazz’s history.
The lad was Hugh Masekela, and within 15 years he’d fronted Africa’s first globally significant jazz group, emigrated to the US, and had a hit with Grazin’ in the Grass. Though visited with plenty of success, Masekela’s life has been a tough one, marked by 30 years of exile, and a personal struggle with alcoholism. The musical record of such a life, you’d think, would be a melancholy one. Masekela will be bringing his inimitable mix of American bebop idioms, rhythm and blues and South African traditions to next week’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival, and yet the most striking thing about it remains its indomitable cheerfulness. Even the protesting pieces such as Sharpeville – a tribute to the 69 victims of the 1961 massacre – never strike a desolate or angry note.
When I ask why this should be, as he chats on the phone from South Africa, Masekela rumbles one of his trademark chuckles and explains that it’s the music itself that cheers him. “You have to remember that for us music was a way to lift ourselves out of our situation. That is why in South Africa music is everywhere. I remember our weekends were carnivals. I grew up in a migrant labour community, and every weekend the workers would come home and celebrate their heritage in open spaces with dancing and drumming and children’s games.”
So how did you start as a musician? “By having someone hold the gramophone for me so I could wind it up.” What kind of music came out of it? “Oh, everything, our own local bands like the Manhattan Brothers and every American kind of music, from the Andrews Sisters to Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton. We used to go to American movies, we went so many times we could recite all the dialogue.” It sounds as if America was the ideally enticing country. “Well, it wasn’t just America. We also knew George Formby, and those crazy guys, Lavender something.” I help him. “Ah yes, the Lavender Hill Mob.”
The outside world was beckoning, and with some help from Huddlestone, Masekela escaped in 1961 to England, where he studied trumpet at the Guildhall School. But it was New York that he had his sights on. “That was where the beboppers were. I was already a major practitioner with the Jazz Epistles, and now finally I could learn more at the source. You know, before I got to New York, I already knew the taxi fare from Birdland to the Apollo Theatre.”
Masekela has always known the value of knowledge. “I’d had a British education, and my parents were voracious readers, my father especially. I read Wordsworth and Kipling and Sri Aurobindo. I knew more about countries like England and America than many natives because I was well read. Also you have to remember that if you spend time attending rallies in a repressive country you have to be smart and well-informed. We were always two steps ahead of the police, like the cockneys and the Irish in England.” Again that rumbling chest laugh.
Was it hard for him to hang on to his roots during the long decades in America?
“No, they became fortified, especially for people like us who were obsessed with home. With my wife Miriam (Miriam Makeba, the great South African singer) and Miriam’s daughter and the students who came to join us, we made a community, a home from home. We monitored South Africa on a daily or even hourly basis, and were more informed about it than people in South Africa itself, who were isolated. So that was what held us together to a great extent. Also, don’t forget I was not in America for all those years. I lived in Liberia and Ghana and Guinea on and off, and learned many things, especially from my dear friend and brother Fela” (the late Fela Kuti, the Nigerian composer and pioneer of the Afro-beat genre that flavours much of Masekela’s music).
Since 1991 Masekela has been back in his homeland, where he has created a recording studio and become a mentor for young, emerging musicians. Now, having just turned 70, he’s enjoying the position of being an elder statesman of African music, much in demand at festivals worldwide. But that doesn’t mean the old anger has gone. One song on the new album speaks of politicians who turn their back on their supporters once they gain power, and “embrace the enemy”. I wonder who he has in mind. “Well, this is a worldwide problem. Politicians are more interested in their party and their position than their people. But what is tragic is that even in Africa, where we were enslaved and colonised, the governments that have emerged have mostly been worse than the colonial governments they replaced. So the joke is on us.”
Alongside the anger is a sorrow that 50 years of global success have only deepened. “For centuries our cultural heritage and traditional values were rubbished and replaced by religion and so-called civilization. And now they are attacked by consumerism. In this respect, China and India and Japan are more fortunate. Their culture still acts as a mirror for the people. It tells them who they are, and the world respects them for that. When our grandchildren ask who they are, we will have to say ‘we used to be Africans’.