Trumpet grooves from Masekela's homeland

South African jazz artiste, Hugh Masekela. Photo | Courtesy of Rock paper scissor  

Born out of South Africa's apartheid system, Hugh Masekela was an early entrant into the world of trumpets and drumbeats; benefiting immensely from some of the best musical experiences of the world.

His first trumpet was a gift from Louis Armstrong; Harry Belafonte facilitated his flight to New York where Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis hosted him.

When he recently sprinted onto the stage in Nairobi, Masekela, who turned 72 in April, left many wowed. “My wife and I practice the Chinese martial arts tai chi every day and I swim and laugh a lot,” he said, when asked about his vigorous 2-hour show, accompanied by a largely youthful band.

Ever the entertainer, the witty trumpeter, vocalist and songwriter regaled the crowd with humorous tales in between performances.

He recalled the apartheid laws in South Africa that prohibited Africans from consuming alcohol and how he grew up in a drinking den watching his grandmother play hide and seek with the police. “I didn’t turn out too badly for a boy born in a shebeen,” Masekela joked while performing Khauleza, a song originally by another South African great Dorothy Masuka.

Stimela the protest note

It is by hearing tales of cruelty and measly pay from migrant labourers who used to drink in his grandmother’s shebeen that he wrote the powerful protest song Stimela. The 1972 classic which begins with Masekela mimicking the steam engine that carried forced labour to Johannesburg still arouses strong passions.

Though generally categorised as a jazz artiste, Masekela’s music is a whole lot more, reflecting the wide diversity of his experiences, including 30 years in exile. There are distinct influences from traditional mbaqanga of South Africa, West African Afrobeat and even a trace of Congolese rumba. “ My music is a potpourri of the music of the African diaspora,” he says, “ I am the sum total of my influences.”

The swinging groove of Makoti (originally recorded by Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks in 1959), from the latest album Jabulani,is irresistible. The album, which reunites him with long-time producer Don Laka, is a collection of South African folk wedding songs inspired by the township ceremonies of yesteryear.

Jabulani is a departure from the years of political conscience that Bra Hugh - as they call him - is associated with.

Under apartheid, the trumpet became his weapon of choice: “The trumpet got us on the front pages of every newspaper at a time when we didn’t see black people in the papers and our music was banned on the radio,” he says.

Musical roots

When he is not singing in that familiar gravel voice, Masekela picks up the gleaming trumpet that conveys such deep sound and emotion, a product built over years.

At 21, Masekela had left South Africa, landed in New York via a stint in London, thanks to the support of the American calypso legend Harry Belafonte, an early promoter of what came to be called World Music. He immersed himself in the vibrant jazz scene of the Big Apple among luminaries of the “Golden Age of Jazz” like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.

Masekela and his compatriot and short-lived wife Miriam Makeba broke into the international charts because they stuck to their musical roots and didn’t imitate the Western sound. In his autobiography, Still Grazing the Grass, he confesses to having tried to sound like his illustrious American hosts but they advised him to keep doing his own style.

He recalls Miles Davis saying to him, "You are just going be a statistic if you play jazz. But if you put some of the stuff from Africa, you’ll be different from everybody.”

Masekela’s marriage to Makeba was less successful though, breaking down after just two years in 1966. “It ended because we simply didn’t have time to see each other.”
When asked if he misses the late singer, Masekela typically responds, “Who doesn’t?” He says Makeba is just like the American jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong: “Her legacy is such that it feels like she is still alive today.”

The late 60s were arguably the most artistically productive for Masekela as he recorded some of his most definitive works including the mellow catchy tune Grazing In The Grass. It sold 4 million copies and reached No. 1 in the US pop charts.

In the 1970s he spent time in Guinea, Ghana, Zaire (DRC), Senegal and Nigeria where he drew more Afro inspiration for his music, working with his contemporaries like Fela Kuti, Manu Dibango and the Ghanaian band Hedzolah Soundz.

Masekela played a prominent role in bringing James Brown and other American musicians to perform alongside African stars at a spectacular concert held as a prelude to the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ boxing match between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa 1974.

His personal life also underwent turmoil with a well-publicized addiction to alcohol and drugs. “I have had a very eventful life, had a lot of unexpected great fortune, and then also a lot of dysfunctional periods in my life,” he says.

Song for Mandela

One of those great fortunes was a letter smuggled out of prison from Nelson Mandela wishing Masekela a happy 46th birthday in 1985. The letter acted as the inspiration to a song that is a crowd favourite everywhere he performs: BringHim Back Home (Nelson Mandela).

Incidentally Masekela’s sister Barbara served as Mandela’s chief of staff during his release from prison until he was elected President of South Africa.

By the end of the 1980s, Masekela won acclaim for his role in the hit musical Sarafina and was among the star cast of African musicians, including Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who appeared on the Graceland tour with American singer Paul Simon.

In 1990, record crowds turned up across the newly liberated nation of South Africa for a chance to see the legend who had been away for 30 years, in a homecoming tour called Sekunjalo (This is it).

Besides touring the world, Masekela’s passion and energy is now directed at the pursuit of film and theatre through his Chissa Entertainment company. As he put is, “Anything I can do to create platforms for the excellence of the continent to be seen and heard I will do.”
Among his current projects include making the film version of his autobiography Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela.

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