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Apartheid and all that jazz

By David Honigma
October 2010

Hugh Masekela began the day in Oslo; he will finish it in Brecon. In transit, making a quick stop in London, he knows precisely what he wants. “I need an espresso,” he growls, his trademark East Rand rasp undiluted by decades travelling the world. “And a cognac.”

Next month, Masekela, now 71 and South Africa’s most celebrated living musician, embarks on a UK tour with fellow veterans the Mahotella Queens.

They may join him on stage for a closing song. “We just did a tribute to [activist/singer] Miriam Makeba in Toulouse. [Singer/songwriter] Thandiswa Mazwai was also there, and Zohani Mahola, the lead singer of Freshlyground, and Vusi Mahlasela. We all rehearsed with the band I play with. It was a most marvellous night,” he says.

Masekela has been playing the trumpet since he was 14. At school in Sofiatown, the doomed black suburb of Johannesburg later bulldozed as a “black spot”, he “saw a movie about a trumpet player” – it was Young Man with a Horn, in which Kirk Douglas starred as Bix Beiderbecke. “And I fell in love with it. Especially the soundtrack, which was played by Harry James. The most beautiful sounds in the world.”

Masekela had come to the attention of school chaplain Trevor Huddleston as a troubled youth. “I said to Father Huddleston, ‘If I got a trumpet I wouldn’t bother anyone.’ So he got me a trumpet and a trumpet teacher and we ended up forming a band.” An early recording of the Father Huddleston Band, playing “Ndenzeni Na”, showcases Masekela’s animated trumpet playing powering the music forward.

Huddleston went one better. Expelled from South Africa after convincing his diocese to reject the apartheid-era government’s Bantu Education Act, he returned to England via New York. “He met Louis Armstrong and told him about us and Louis Armstrong sent us a trumpet. We became news. The older musicians discovered us. Five of us are still professional musicians today.” Masekela apart, the best-known is the trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, who composed the score for Richard Attenborough’s 1987 film Cry Freedom.

With his friends, Masekela played “in all the townships, anywhere you could get work”. It was a tough apprenticeship. “Even today, South African muscians can play any kind of music because we were never categorical in our approach. When I played in the township dance bands we had to learn ballroom dance songs, the wedding march, waltzes. And we had the movies too. There was Doris Day, there was Mario Lanza ... and the cowboys. We would imitate Smiley Burnette – he was the greatest yodeller.” Masekela briefly yodels, impressively, then segues into a snatch of “My Darling Clementine”.

He worked his way through bands such as the Jazz Dazzlers and the Jazz Epistles. He was part of the cast of the musical King Kong and went into exile in the early 1960s along with many of its members. “We all sought more knowledge and skills – and recognition, because we thought we were good enough for the world. The apartheid regime isolated us, so it became a major yearning to go where you had access to enhancing your knowledge. That’s the reason there was such a big exodus.”

Also in the King Kong cast was Miriam Makeba, six years Masekela’s senior. She and Masekela were married from 1965 to 1968, during which time they lived in America. “We were very successful.” Masekela played trumpet with The Byrds and won a Grammy nomination for “Grazin’ In The Grass”; Makeba landed a Grammy for an album with Harry Belafonte. “We supported each other before we got married and long after we were married. We were passionate about South Africa and we also had our grudges. Miriam couldn’t go back to bury her mother after she died. [In 1960, when Makeba tried to return home for her mother’s funeral, she found that her passport had been revoked.] She addressed the UN in 1963 – she was the first person to bring knowledge about South Africa to the entire world.” At this point, Makeba was stripped of her citizenship altogether.

Makeba died last year, in the middle of a tour. “She was an amazing person because she sacrificed a very lucrative career to fight for liberation, to make people aware about oppression, not only in South Africa but in Angola, Mozambique, the Congo, Zambia, everywhere,” Masekela says. “She became friends with all the liberation movements and raised money for all of them. I don’t think anyone did more for Africa than Miriam Makeba in the history of the continent. She was an amazing woman.”

Even if Masekela’s best-known songs are breezy instrumentals, he is highly political. “The media has tried to compartmentalise me, but my biggest stand is against the decimation of nature and against injustice anywhere in the world.”

He insists that injustice is not restricted to Africa. “I see injustice in England. All over the world is injustice, against the poor, against the illiterate, against migrants. There’s racist injustice, there’s ethnic cleansing. If it exists in Africa, it was exacerbated by its exploitation by the industrial complex of the world.”

In Ghana he met another liberation-minded musician, Nigeria’s Fela Kuti. “Fela has been as over-compartmentalised as Mandela has,” he says. “The media always looks for somebody. The liberation of South Africa has been reduced to ... Mandela. But Mandela could never have been – with all due respect – without the people of South Africa. Without the people who laid down their lives and without the people who built his name while he was in jail.”

Masekela contributed his own piece of the Mandela myth with his song “Bring Him Back Home”. The original version of the song pictures Mandela, then imprisoned, walking down the streets of Soweto with his former wife Winnie; in performance she has now been airbrushed out of the chorus. Now, though, Masekela dismisses it: “It was just a song, it was just a song. I come from a people, and those people are much bigger than me. They are my source and my resource and if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be. Whenever people try to say I did something I say, ‘One day I just woke up and wrote a song because Mandela sent me a birthday greeting from jail’. It doesn’t make me a liberation hero. I refuse that mantle.”

Nonetheless, Masekela’s concern with social justice is a constant thread in his music. “Stimela (Coal Train)” has grown into a chilling 20-minute tour de force in which he imitates the wheezing of the train bringing migrant workers to work in South Africa’s mines. “I grew up at a time when there were small townships, mining towns surrounded by mining compounds. There were immigrant migrant labourers from all the neighbouring countries and the entire hinterland of SA itself.”

But the anger is mixed with fondness. “There were 20 or 30 ethnic groups with types of clothing like plumage,” he says. “Different dressing and pageantry and drumming and singing and dancing.”

When not touring, Masekela lives on a one-and-a-half acre plot – “like a little farm” – in Bryanston, a well-heeled, liberal northern suburb of Johannesburg. “I have one of the most beautiful gardens in the world. The two things I like doing most outside music are gardening and tai chi. It helps to centre and focus me.”

When not gardening, he is involved in theatrical productions that revive South Africa’s musical heritage. “I’m part of the cast of a play called Songs of Migration that we’re bringing to England next year. It’s a cross-section of South Africa’s migration songs from as far back as we can go to the most recent. With very high-level performances” – notably from singer Sibongile Khumalo – “and a great script by James Ngcobo. We’re also working on a Miriam Makeba musical. And a Joseph Shabalala portrait. The women of South Africa – the Dolly Rathebes and Dorothy Masukas. Revival through entertainment.”

He is suddenly animated. “A lot of our heritage was rubbished by international business and religion as heathen and backward, and savage and barbaric. For very many decades we believed it. But that’s going to go away. When that goes away there’s going to be a major arts revival and renaissance in Africa.”

The cognac and espresso have come to an end. “My biggest obsession is working on a revival of the past for Africa. Africa’s past – there’s amazing history and diversity and wealth that has to be put together to show the world and to show future generations. We’re the only community that is impoverished all over the world. But the biggest wealth that cannot be taken away from us is our heritage, and that is my biggest obsession. To show it, in whatever vehicle, and to campaign for people to wake up to it and revive it. That’s the greatest way forward for the African. I don’t think anyone’s going to do it for us.”

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