Bra Hugh: an icon par excellence

A WISH COME TRUE: Hugh Masekela was a trumpeter, flugelhornist, cornetist, composer, singer and the father of US television host Sal

THERE is an almost unintended funky rhyme about his speech, down to the way he drags certain words to plant emphasis on a point, era or highlight of a career that comfortably sits at more than five decades. His slurred and yet well thought out anecdotes make for addictive listening as we kick start a journey that has seen Masekela tour the continent and the world over.

His world view is impeccable and his understanding of global and cultural issues oozes unquestionable credibility. Amidst our pleasantries he starts to unpack the past two months like he is reading from a teleprompter. “I’ve been working lately. If slavery came back tomorrow, I wouldn’t notice. We did Europe with the band in September and have just returned from the Lusaka festival which was the first one that they’ve had. “They expected 3000 people. I think they ended up with 15000 people.

We did it with Oliver Mtukudzi, Zonke and some of their artists.” I quickly premise our conversation on his return from exile in 1991. He lights up, thin streaks of retrospective nostalgia forming on his forehead. “I was like a pig in dirty mud. It was fantastic to be with Bayete and Sankomota at the same time. We performed all the favourite South African songs and we played for 10000- 20000 people every night and it was just fantastic.” His knowledge of the continent is so credible. I divert our conversation to his love of the continent and when the Africa love bug bit him. “It came more out of curiosity because of all the records I had been collecting from different countries including Congo and Guinea where I absorbed the culture for two years. “I learnt the songs and played with the musicians there. I moved on to Liberia and spent a lot of time in Ghana and Nigeria.

I then wrote a letter to Fela Kuti and said, listen, I’d like to play with African musicians because I can’t go back home. The whole area Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Namibia was all at war and I cannot go anywhere near there and I just need the transfusion.” Fela was to take Masekela to Ghana where he met Hedzoleh Soundz the band that he would play with for the next six years. He went on to record the hit Stimela with that band. He also spent a lot of time in Jamaica with the great Johnny Nash before heading out to Botswana for four years and then moved to Congo where he organised the first Rumble in the Jungle festival. He adds: “So I didn’t just embrace Africa, I went to Africa, I lived there.

The thing that I find is getting worse is that we don’t know who we are. We’re the only society that imitates other cultures. As a result we don’t sell anything, we’re a society of consumers. “We’re the only people who’ve been discouraged from being ourselves. We’ve actually come to believe that our heritage is backward, is primitive, savage, heathen. “Barbaric, so much that the people that got us like that don’t even have to work on us any more. We have our own people working on us on that.” Masekela is working on an integrated academy that will have programmes aimed at restoring African heritage. “In your country (Zimbabwe) some musicians had to leave the country and there were people who fought along with everybody for freedom. We were going through an era where politicians became uneasy with the power of music and theatre and, hopefully, that paranoia will be over soon. “You have to participate in your craft.

If you don’t participate in your craft, it’s just a wish and it’s sad that business and government in Africa don’t push the arts. “I just came from Europe and the support for the arts is amazing. “Arts is not a seasonal thing. Every day you have symphony, ballet, clubs for contemporary music, opera, museums, carnivals, celebrations and that’s what should be happening. “The African intelligentsia and the African urban classes have always looked down on the arts. When we started, there was one guy who was working in arts and culture who publicly said, artists were not activists. They were just frolicking frivolously on the periphery of politics.

It was never taken seriously. For me to become a musician, I had to run away from home and wait for my parents to hear from me. “When my father was informed that I had not attended school in three months, that day he beat me so bad, I left a note saying ‘listen this is my thing I’m sorry’. “It took a great musician by the name of Zakes Nkosi who was one of the forerunners, the pioneers of township music – my father respected him – to change things. “He invited a band for a session where I was going to be a soloist. The band, the orchestra, they were like the cream of South Africa. I was playing there and my parents walked in and I was like, oh no Zakes sold me out.

Zakes featured me and my parents both broke down in tears and they just begged me to come back home and they were my biggest supporters after that. “I still believe that our excellence is still locked up in our heritage. Our excellence doesn’t lie with the people we imitate. If you look at African musicians who are universally known like Salif Keita, Angelique Kidjo, Youssou N’dour, Ishmael Lo and Oliver Mtukuzi, it’s all people who come from heritage and people respect that because heritage is one thing they don’t have. They can’t do it and nobody can do it like us and to our people it brings pride.”

This is a reprint of an interview
published in The New Age in
November 2014