LAST October, Barney Rachabane (the great alto sax player who often performed with his friend Hugh), Cathy Brubeck and I were sitting together at a restaurant in Johannesburg’s Rosebank Mall and Barney’s phone had a message from Hugh in hospital. We all quickly sent combined wishes and a few minutes later his phone pinged again with a message about how cancer is a “persistent” or “tenacious” enemy but nevertheless he returned his good wishes. That was my last contact with the great Hugh Masekela.
Our lives connected and intersected at significant points over the last 50 years, starting in 1968 when Grazin. In The Grass was a major hit in the US. Back then I was just another student music fan falling for a sound and feel that was relaxed yet exciting, new yet familiar. It still plays in my head and I’ve been hearing it almost non-stop since Tuesday morning when the world heard of Hugh’s death. The importance of that track and Hugh’s music generally was that it announced a new kind of African presence. It took getting used to in 1968 because Americans mainly associated Africa with drums and choirs and this music sounded both African and western, urban and modern.
This is the identity that Masekela’s music projected for the first time on a massive scale. Around 10 years later I had been to South Africa for the first time and soon after met Hugh in New York through my friendship with composer and bassist Victor Ntoni. Victor was both studying at Berklee College of Music and playing with Hugh at the famous Village Gate. I didn’t know then that I was to spend a significant part of my life in South Africa. Once, when I was back in Connecticut on leave from the University of Natal’s music department, Hugh visited me and my parents, Dave and Iola Brubeck.
He was living in upstate New York and of course unsure when he would or could return to SA, but he did say that he might like to teach a jazz course there some day and communicate the bond between American and South African jazz. In 1987 I formally interviewed him at the Montreux Jazz Festival for The Weekly Mail. I’m sure other people have mentioned Hugh’s humility, but this conversation provided two striking examples in different areas. He was genuinely modest about being on a programme billed the Trumpet Summit with Randy Brecker and other greats – as though he weren’t one himself. And, because Hugh was perhaps the most prominent musician in the ANC’s international cultural campaign against apartheid, I thought I should ask if he had a message for his music comrades back home. He brushed this off with the phrase, “Messages come from above”. Although articulate, witty and outspoken, he was aware that his life as a free and relatively wealthy black South African outside the country was far removed from the realities his fellow musicians in Soweto and Langa were coping with and he wouldn’t burden them further with advice on how to dedicate their lives to the struggle. After he finally returned to South Africa in 1990, Bra Hugh seemed to be everywhere, especially in demand for huge concerts, but discussions did resume about the possibility of teaching at the University of Natal.
I was the go-between whenever he came down to Durban and, through the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music, he did conduct memorable classes. His impact on students was indeed like something “from above”! He also appeared with the Brubeck/Ntoni Afro Cool Concept band at the founding conference of the South African Association for Jazz Education in 1992. However, it proved impossible to harmonise his international and SA schedule with regular teaching. Last year Hugh was deservedly awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of KwaZulu-Natal for his brilliant contribution to music and recognised as a committed and compassionate human being. His legacy enriches us all and, like many others, I’ll always treasure my memories of this truly great musician and South African.
Darius Brubeck, jazz composer and band leader