Hugh Masekela on tour

A trumpeter and freedom activist, Masekela has been referred to as a pioneer of African jazz and his tour is an indication of the many international tours to come until December. He has been called the father of African jazz by some. But if Hugh Masekela does not answer to these appellations, it is not just modesty at work. Like so many great musicians of his mould, he disappoints jazz fans by disdaining the very title of “jazz musician”.

Over the 40 years he has been playing his horn, Masekela has produced pop music, disco, techno, yes – jazz, as well as what he is most noted for: a fusion of South African traditional bass lines and a light, frisky post-bop that defies genre, but has captivated the imaginations and hearts of listeners all over the world.

He has been so successful at this that 40 years, over 30 albums and several awards later, he is comfortably one of Africa’s most famous musicians – jazz or no jazz.

Masekela embarked on the road to greatness after he saw a Kirk Douglas movie, Young Man With a Horn, a biopic of Biz Biederbeck. The 19-year-old Masekela got his first trumpet from a local priest, Archbishop Trevor Huddleton. Soon he had mastered the instrument and was playing in jazz outfits led by such greats as Kippie Moeketsi and Elijah Nkwanyana.

Music wasn’t the only thing Huddleston gave Masekela. After the British anti-apartheid priest was deported by the racist South African government, Masekela, himself a budding activist, found himself also in need of escape. With the help of Huddleton and friends like Harry Belafonte, Yehudi Menuhin, Dizzy Gillespie and his future wife Miriam Makeba, Masekela was whisked out of South Africa and placed in the prestigious Manhattan School of Music.

“I wanted to impart the knowledge I’d gathered,” Masekela said in an interview with Sonicnet. “But by then it was really too late. People were being imprisoned and killed. Harry Belafonte told me that with my big mouth I’d never last in South Africa. He suggested staying in America and making a name for myself. Then, when I talked, people would listen.”

And make a name he did. He toured, performed and recorded widely and his success grew up to the point of his first major smash hit, which is still the one title most people think of when they hear the name Masekela. It is that delightful finger-snapper, Grazin’ In The Grass. It was a surprise hit for Masekela himself, who only recorded it in 30 minutes as album filler.

In the next few years, the musician in exile would continue to exploit his African roots, collaborating with Ghana’s Hedzolah Sounds, who he met though Fela Kuti, to produce memorable tunes like Vasco Da Gama, African Secret Society and the classic Stimela, a moving ballad about the suffering of black south African coal miners.

Masekela had settled in Gabarone, and even started a music school, when once again he had to flee Africa.

“The South African Defence Squads came and raided and killed a lot of people, including friends of mine. At that point the government couldn’t safeguard the life of any South African activist, and I’d been very active,” he recalls.

He fled to England and, while there he created even more great work. With Mbongeni Ngema he conceived and scored the Broadway hit musical Sarafina! and recorded Bring Back Nelson Mandela, which became a major anti-apartheid anthem and was performed widely in the year the former president was released from jail and the end of apartheid.

With the fall of apartheid, Masekela finally returned home, where he works to encourage and educate young musicians and other artistes, and where he has his base. He still tours extensively today, at the sprightly age of 61.

A recent compilation, Grazin’ in the Grass: The Best Of Hugh Masekela, a retrospective of his four decades of music, contained no original recordings. Every song was done afresh. But All Music Guide reckoned that it just showed that the old man can still play his trumpet and flugelhorn with the same energy, still blow those feisty and energetic and gut wrenching tunes that made his name as well as he did in his earlier years.

On Saturday, September 2, Hugh Masekela was expected to perform in Uganda at the new Serena Hotel, in a concert sponsored by various Kampala newspapers, MTN and South African Airways, to benefit Uganda Society for Disabled Children.

Jazz fans, afro-pop fans and fans of old-school South African pop will mingle together to enjoy the music of a man who for four decades has proven himself to be more than just a jazz icon, and has deserved the greater title of African Music icon.

September 2006
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