Hugh Masekela: Strength in Music and Character
He's spent his life doing just that. Playing his flugelhorn with force and finesse, he's traveled the world spreading a message of concern for those around the globeespecially in Africawho are under duress and oppression. He grew up in the apartheid of South Africa, but spent time going to music school in London and New York City, getting a chance to meet some of his musical jazz heroes in the process. But he never stopped caring about his countrymen back home and his zealous passion for freedom for all peoplenot just governmental freedom, but freedom from poverty and the feeling of hopelessness.
, Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte, who told me that Louis Armstrong never finished a paragraph without mentioning New Orleans," Masekela says from a New York City Hotel room in April. "I learned from all of them that if you have for your source of success the disadvantaged community you come from and you're never concerned about the quality of their lives after you've made it, you need your head examined. You find that most artists who are just about themselves eventually only self destruct."
"I learned a lot from people like Dizzy Gillespie
The song "Bring It Back Home," from his new CD Phola (Time Square Records) released earlier this year, carries that message, reprimanding people who forget where they came from and turn their back to suffering. On the recording, he is still delivering songs with a purpose. But it also contains tales of his life and tales of romance, all coming through a sweet blend of African rhythms, jazz and pop sensibilities, and steered by his powerful horn.
"We grew up in demonstrations," says the native of Witbank, South Africa, who grew up in the 1940s when there was a great deal of instability in his country. That decade was a tumultuous time, filled with social and political upheaval in the nation that was colonized in the 17th century by the English and Dutch. The eventual electoral victory of the Afrikaner Nationalist Party led to the inauguration of apartheid.
"We grew up in strikes. We grew up in bus boycotts. We were cognizant of the situation from the time we were little kids. When you're a child, you're even more aware than many adults because you're directly affected," says Masekela. "We grew up as activists."
It may well be that musicspecifically his first trumpet given to him at the age of 14kept him out of serious trouble that was brewing in his early years. But musically, Masekela, who grew up listening to 78 rpm recordings of American popular music and jazz on his uncle's gramophone, isn't waving his fist at the air in anger. His music, especially in live performance, is uplifting. It's heavy in African-influenced rhythms and melody, but also contains elements of the music he has listened to all his life, all over the world; jazz is one part of it. It's buoyant, even when dealing with a heavy message.
"We try to make it musically habitable, musically enjoyable, so that it doesn't feel like we're over-preaching or beating you on the head with messages. It's not really so much to impose a message as much as to express concern," says Masekela. "People leave their homes, arrange for babysitters. They pay their money to come a long way, some of them. They deserve to be given a time that is worth their bother. That's how I approach all of our performances. Let's make it worthwhile for the people that have come to see us."
, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis and Harry James. He's attained a great deal of success over the years, including his 1968 hit, "Grazing in the Grass," that became one of the few instrumentals to reach the number-one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. And he's still making new music, heard on his newest recording, Phola, released earlier this year on Time Square Records.
Masekela started as a trumpeter and has played flugelhorn for the last 40 years, influenced by the music of his homeland of South Africa, and also by American jazzmen like Dizzy Gillespie
"In 1969, I got a record called The Musings of Miles (Prestige, 1955), and on one track he played the flugelhorn and it had such a beautiful sound. I always found the trumpet a little screechy. I kind of blow hard. So I opted for a flugelhorn, and I've been playing it now for 40 years," he notes.
Davis stressed to Masekela the importance of sound, and even repeated the advice that his own trumpet instructor in St. Louis, Elwood Buchanan, had stressed to the young Miles Dewey III. "Miles told me to try not to vibrate, because when you get old, you're going to shake anyway," Masekela fondly recalls. "Try and think like a singer."
"In the last four years, I've been practicing againa lot. On Phola, I think I play differently from how I've been playing ... I feel like I'm progressing. Especially on getting a singing sound. I think it's very important. For a while there, I rode on my success. Five years ago, I decided I should really practice again. I'm working on getting that sound. Not only in playing, but also in singing. So, sound is the most important thing. There's no doubt about that."
Phola, he says, means "to chill; to hand out; to calm down." But that doesn't really apply to the meanings in each song. It may, however, apply somewhat to his approach vocally and on flugelhorn throughout the recording. "Most of the other songs are songs of concern about the nature of the life of ordinary people who are taken advantage of all over the year. Basically, I think Phola is so much about my having healed my problems in my life and the need for the world to heal, especially because there is so much war and so much repression and so much turmoil. It's a cross section of emotions, but really it's an appeal for the quality of life, especially of poor people, to be considered," he says.
Produced and arranged by Erik Paliani, it is perhaps a bit more laid-back in approach, yet the music is bright and Masekela sounds great on the horn. He credits Paliani with the overall sweet sound of the music. "He said to me, 'I don't want to impose my capabilities on this. But we'd like to compliment as much as we can, what you do. I want to ask you not to be so intense and scream like you do in your other work and not to attack the trumpet as hard as you do. Just relax and let the music come across.' And that's how it came out.
"People are enjoying it. It's very calm and laid-back, but it maintains its intensity. I think that the professionalism and the performance of the musicians is quite good. It feels to me like a sleeper. It will grow on audiences for a long period of time."
He adds, "The first track was written by Erik Paliani. "Mwanayu Wakula" encourages small children to be nurtured, for their talents to be grown and developed as much as possible, and supported. "Moz," is a dedication to Mozambique, which is a beautiful country with very beautiful people. "The Joke of Life" is a Brazilian song written by Jon Lucien. "Ghana" is a love song. It traces how I met my wife 32 years ago and our romance and our life today."
"Mwanayu Wakula" opens with rhythms of Africa when in walks Masekela with his big toneplaying melodic and rhythmic phrases, letting the rhythms breathe. Breezy vocals begin and enter lyrics which Masekela's horn float gracefully through. "Moz" is thick with drums and rhythm guitar, and becomes somewhat reminiscent of "Grazing in the Grass." Each tune is accessible and creative, injected with Masekela's ability to pierce to the heart of the music. His sound is strong and vital.
The track "Sonnyboy" is autobiographical. It referenced the young Masekela, listening to recordings on the gramophone and becoming enraptured with music. His parents resisted his musical direction at first. But it was inevitable that it would become his life.
"I came from a family of mostly community and health workers. My father was a health inspector. My mother was a social worker. My aunts and uncles were either school teachers or school inspectors, supervisors, nursescommunity workers. They all hoped I would come out as an academic, or medical or lawyer or something like that. They were very upset when I said I wanted to become a professional musician," recounts Masekela. "I actually had to run away from home (at age 16). It wasn't until a great musician who was a friend of my parents, Zakes Nkosihe used to book me at many of his recording sessionsinvited them. It was timed just right. I was taking a solo on a recording and they entered the studio. It was the first time that they really heard me perform. From then on they supported me. But I'd run away from home. It was a month later I appealed to Zakes to try and explain it to them. I guess he figured that if they saw me and heard me play, they'd change their minds, which they did."
Say the lyrics:
...He began to live for nothing else but the music that he heard.
We were wrong to take him away from the only thing that was close to his little heart.
We got to let him do his thing, got to let him be, got to set him free.
Let him fly away from where we want to try and tell him just how to live for the rest of his life.
Let him fly away. Let him dance to what he hears inside his mind.
Let Momma and Papa tell him to go ahead and do the things he needs to do.
Sonnyboy. Go and do your thing, Sonnyboy.
Sonnyboy, go blow your horn let it echo the world over.
Sonnyboy, put down all the walls that prevent you from all that you want.
Sonnyboy, blow your horn until everyone dances to your music..."
Says Masekela, "The song is taking into consideration a child's passion. If they want to follow a certain profession, instead of dictating what you would like them to be, you try and support what they are passionate about."
He explains with a chuckle that his parents' concern "wasn't unfounded. Just about everybody who I learned from in South Africaall the great musiciansall died from alcohol-related diseases. All of them. That was my mother's biggest fear: 'Oh, you're going to become a drunk and hang out with prostitutes.' That kind of thing. They were terrified. It wasn't unfounded. But eventually I made them proud and they became my biggest supporters."
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With his growing success as a musician at home, his grandmother, whom he lived with until he was about 7, taught him to remain humble, no matter what he achieves.
Masekela recalls, "My grandmother, who raised us until we were old enough to go live with our parents, didn't see me for 20 years. Then when I went to live in Botswana, she came to visit me. She said, 'I'm observing that people are greeting you and treating you with respect and all that. I just want to remind you that when you were born, you didn't bring anything with you. You didn't have anywhere to live, so we took you in. We clothed you and bathed you. We taught you how to walk. We taught you how to talk. We taught you how to think. We sent you to school. You lived rent-free for 17 years. I used to carry you on my back and I'll never be able to scrub all the ammonia you left. It took us three years just to show you where the toilet was. If with anybody you talk to you don't mention this, my ethnic group, we deal with lightning. We don't need clouds to throw lightning at you wherever you go. So for the sake of those you are with and for your own sake, any time that you get any praise. Make sure you tell this story. Because you will never be able to repay us for what we did for you.'
Masekela says he was enthralled by music by the age of 2, and listened to the gramophone even though he needed help to wind it up. "By the time I was 6 years old I was a walking anthology of all the records I'd heard and all the other traditional music. There was no television in those days, so children played in the street. We had children street songs. And there were wedding street songs. There were all kinds of marching bands and traditional ethnic groups doing their pageantry and singing and dancing with drums and all. I was surrounded by music.
"My parents realized that I sang all the time, even when I wasn't near the gramophone. So they got me piano lessons. By the time I was 13 or 14, I had been a musician for 13 years."
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In boarding school, his interest in music was still prominent. "I took to music like a frog or a fish in water. That's all I've ever been interested in," he notes. He also got the chance to see the American film "Young Man with a Horn," which starred Kirk Douglas as Rick Martin, a character said to be based loosely on Bix Beiderbecke, the famed cornet player out of Chicago.
"That impressed me. I made up my mind I was going to be a trumpet player. Harry James, who played the soundtrack, had the most wonderful tone, as you might know. Kirk Douglas had the finest threads. He didn't take any rubbish from anybody, always got the girl, stood in front of the band and played all the solos."
Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, the anti-apartheid chaplain of St. Peters Secondary School where Masekela was enrolled, recognized his love of music. He presented the teenager with a trumpet, but there were also words to the wise. "He came to ask me, 'What do you really want to do?' because he worried about everybody, especially restless people. I was always in trouble with the authorities at school," says Masekela. "He knew my parents because he was not only a community worker, but also a political activist. Where I grew up with my parents, the township was the hub of political resistance. Those times were difficult. He said, 'The way you're going, if you get expelled from this school, no other school will take you.' I'd seen the movie ("Young Man With the Horn") and I said, 'Father, if I get a trumpet I won't bother anybody anymore.' So he said, 'I'm going to get you a trumpet and a trumpet teacher. If you don't succeed, if you don't take this seriously, it will be your fault.'"
Huddleston got him the teacher, but Masekela was on his way once the instrument was in his eager hands. "All I had to learn when Huddleston got me the trumpet teacher was how to hold it and how to blow it. A few months later, I was playing songs on it. I just had to learn the mechanics of it. By the time I started to play songs, other kids were excited. They went to Bishop Huddleston and said, 'Father, can I have a trombone? Father, can I have a clarinet? A saxophone?' Soon, we had a huge band."
It led to the formation of the Huddleston Jazz Band, South Africa's very first youth orchestra. Masekela and his cohorts were already informed by listening to records from the United States. This knowledge and familiarity cleared a path for the youngsters. "We knew everything that Louis Armstrongdid, or Louis Jordan or the Andrews Sisters or the Mills Brothers. Nat "King" Cole. We were walking anthologies. Even when we formed the Huddleston band, we didn't have to read music because we knew all the songs. We just chose the parts: 'OK, I'll play the third part, I'll play the second part, I'll play the lead, I'll play the solos.'
"I was playing all the songs from the movie and things like "I'm in the Mood for Love," "Stardust," "My Dream is Yours," "I'll See You in my Dreams." All these melodies rang in my head." His trumpet influences came from his years listening to the gramophone. "Louis Armstrong blew everybody away. We grew up hearing 'I'll be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You,' 'When It's Sleepy Time Down South,' 'Rocking Chair.' The Hot Five and the Hot Seven. Then there was Harry James, Buck Clayton. But when bebop came in, Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge blew us away. But when I heard Clifford Brown and Miles Davisespecially Clifford Brownthat was a killer."
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As he grew, Masekela began playing in other dance bands. He joined the African Jazz Revenue in 1956, did a Manhattan Brothers tour of the country in 1958, and wound up playing in the orchestra for "King Kong," a musical that had blockbuster theatrical success, featuring the legendary singer Miriam Makeba (who would later become his first wife). He also became part of Jazz Epistles, which included the outstanding pianist Dollar Brand(now Abdullah Ibrahim). In 1959, it became the first black South African group to record an LP, Jazz Epistle, Verse 1 and became very popular.
With the brutality of apartheid on the rise, including the 1960 incident in Sharpville, South Africa, in which 69 protesters were killed by police bullets, Masekela left the country with the help of Huddleston and his friends Yehudi Menuhin and John Dankworthh (an English jazz musician and husband of singer Cleo Laine). He went to England, where he enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music, but he was restless in the United Kingdom.
"I wouldn't let it rest," says Masekela. "I wrote (Huddleston) two letters a week, saying, 'Get me out of here!' I felt that I needed to have access to the kind of teachers people like Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Miles and all those people had. I was really determined by the time I was 17 or 18 that New York would be my destination. And it came true for me. Of course, Miriam had made a success here in 1959." Makeba, Belafonte and Gillespie were keys to getting Masekela to the United States.
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In New York, Masekela attended the Manhattan school of Music. Also, in the world's jazz capital, he began to meet many of his heroes. Jazz musicians in general, because of their independence, achievement in the face of adversity, and their individual strength, served as inspiration to South Africans, he says.
In his autobiography ("Miles, the Autobiography," Simon and Schuster, 1989), Miles Davis says he met Masekela through Gillespie and that he was "in awe" of meeting the South African who was earning a good reputation in the states. Davis writes that he encouraged Masekela to play in his African-influenced style, rather than American jazz. He also notes he was surprised that he was a hero to Masekela, based on the infamous incident at Birdland where Miles was clubbed over the head by a police offer after being roused without cause by officers.
"Miles Davis was a major hero to everybody because that was on the front page of every South African newspaper, even though it was an apartheid country. The guy stood up to the police outside Birdland. It was international news. We became very good friends. Miles was one of the first people who told me not to become a jazz musician. Because when I first came there, I was a bebopper. I was looking forward to maybe becoming a Messenger in Art Blakey's band. Blakey and Dizzy and Miles, all of them said, 'Why don't you put some of what you got from your country and mix it in. Maybe we can learn something from you. Otherwise, it's just going to be a statistic, like all of us.'
"Belafonte cited Miriam (Makeba) as an example. He said Miriam stood apart from Ella Fitzgeraldand Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae and all those people because she hit them with a whole different thing. I had to dig back into my old dance band days in South Africa, the township dance band, and I came up with the hybrid that I got known for later on."
Masekela was well-versed about things happening in New York City and elsewhere in the U.S. from his regular reading of the major jazz magazines and other publications that made their way to South Africa. He also knew of America's race problems, and found a strong distinction between the overt oppression in his homeland and the covert racism of the States.
In the U.S., in many ways, "It was more dangerous," says Masekela, "because in South Africa, all you had to fear was the police. In America, anybody could kidnap you or tar and feather you in the South, or hang you from a tree. That could have never happened in South Africa. So it was different in that way. In the States, a racist could take care of you themselves. I wasn't naive about the States. I knew everything about what was happening here. We knew who Rosa Parks was, who Martin Luther King was. We knew who Booker T. Washington was, Harriet Tubman. When I came, I was in the company of Miriam Makeba, Dizzy Gillespie and Harry Belafonte. I knew what the deal was."
He also began to gain in popularity and was recording in the early 1960s. His success came as somewhat of a surprise. "I really came to go to school and hoped to play in a jazz group for a while, then go back to South Africa. By the time I finished the Manhattan School of Music, it was too late to go back, because by that time people like Nelson Mandela and others were arrested and some were sentenced to death. People were fleeing from South Africa into exile. I had major success here, but I did not expect it. So it was all gravy. It was something I hadn't planned on."
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"I tried to go back to South Africa in 1963. Belafonte and Miriam tried to discourage me. They said, 'Listen. You're known in South Africa, but you're not known in the world. If you go there, they're just going to put you in jail. With your kind of mouth, you'll probably get into a position where they could even kill you. Nobody will care. Nobody will know you. Why don't you stay here and make a name for yourself. Then when you talk about your country, people will listen.' I chose that."
It was 26 years before he would make it back, but in the meantime, he began to have a string of successful records, like The Americanization of Ooga-Booga (MGM, 1966), and the 1968 hit single "Grazing in the Grass." He had collaborations with Herb Alpert, and went on to perform with people like Paul Simon. "My success gave me a very strong platform to bring awareness to the world about what was happening in South Africa, because I had access to the media," he says.
Masekela finally succeeded in going back to Africa to live, in 1980. "I went to live in Botswana, which is close to South Africa. I lived in South Africa vicariously, because there was a lot of movement between Botswana and South Africa. Then in 1985, the apartheid government death squads raided Botswana and killed about 14 of my friends who were activists. I lived to tell about it. They didn't attack my house. They said they were attacking terrorist camps. The government of Botswana couldn't guarantee us security and safety, so I had to leave the country again."
Back in the U.S., he became involved in production of the Broadway hit musical "Sarafina" Musical production is still an interest today for the veteran musician. "Mbongeni Ngema was the director," he says. "I met him in England in 1983. He was bringing a two-man show into the Coronet Theatre. The show started with a song of mine, the train song, 'Stimela.' It had an uncanny arrangement, the duet they sang. So I went back stage to find out who had arranged it for him. He said he was a musician.
"After I saw 'West Side Story' and 'My Fair Lady,' I always wanted to be involved in a musical. I said to him I had always wanted to do a musical, having been in a very successful musical in South Africa where I played in the band. For the next few years, we tried to figure out what we would do. Then he came up with an idea of the children's uprising. I had given him some of my outtakes of tracks I decided not to use. "Sarafina" was one of them. We developed the play from there. He debuted it in South Africa and developed it there. Then Lincoln Center brought it to one of their small theaters. It was a major hit and went to Broadway. The rest is history."
In the 1980s, he toured with Paul Simon in support of Simon's album Graceland, which featured other South African artists such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Makeba and other elements of the band Kalahari, which Masekela recorded with in the 1980s.
In 1990, after Mandela's release from prison,, he went back home and has been living there ever since, while still traveling the world with his music.
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Of Mandela, Masekela says, "He was a very important symbol for our culture," but his release did not mark the happily-ever-after end of the story. "I think people tend to look at South Africa as a movie. The damages of colonialism and the damages of apartheid are something that will take a very, very long time to reverse and heal. It was all very nice that we became free. But to fix the damages and the effects of it is going to take generations.
Masekela's aim is to help bring Africa's cultural richness to more prominence across the globe and to help Africans establish a strong, independent identity, of which culture is an important part. "That's where I came from. I'm very involved in cultural revival in Africa. I think it's very important in African society as a whole to bring back its cultural face to the world," says Masekela.
"I think Christianity and colonial conquest worked very hard to convince African society that our heritage was barbaric, uncivilized, backward. It was heathen. It was pagan and all kinds of negative things. When people come to Africa today, they come to see the animals and the geographical sites, because they can't find the people. The people are half-ashamed of showing their face. I think it's very important that we bring that to the forefront of our lives and for it to be present in our livesto have visibility in our life. Otherwise, my great-grandchildren, when they ask them who they are, are going to say, 'They say we used to be Africans.' Heritage is not just important to me, it's an obsession." He sees heritage as Africa's biggest wealth and "the only thing that cannot be taken away from us."
Masekela states, "There is strife all over the world, but in Africa, it's really overwhelming. The blame is really on international industrial interests because Africa is a bedrock of raw materials. Most of the wars in Africa are orchestrated by those interests. I don't think international industry would feel comfortable with an economically independent Africa, because it would change the prices and the whole picture of raw materials and cheap labor, among other things."
Still, he says, progress is being made and there is always hope for the future. "If a person like President Obama could help to unify the American nation in two years, although he has a more powerful platform, it is possible to move people to re-evaluate their worth and their strengths and bring out their strengths. It definitely is possible."
These days, in addition to making American jazz festival appearances this year that will include music from Phola, as well as a European tour, Masekela is working, through his Chissa Entertainment, on a theatrical musical presentation that will open in August in South Africa. "It traces the migration music and the music of longing, because South African cities were only born in the 1890s. Songs are mostly about longing. I'm also dabbling in film production. I've got over 10 projects I've been working on with screenplay writers in parts of Africa and a couple of them here (in the U.S.) that are music and culture-driven. Movies that have been made about Africa are always, to me, depressing. We always just see misery. I'd like to bring the culture to the forefront and the excellence of the pageantry, etc., to make people aware that there is not only strife and suffering in Africa, there is also fantastic pageantry, culturally."
Masekela's exceptional musical statements are a part of that tapestrysomething to be savored.
Hugh Masekela, Phola (Time Square Records, 2009)
Hugh Masekela, Revival (Heads Up International, 2005)
Hugh Masekela, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela (Blue Thumb Records, 2004)
Hugh Masekela, Live at the Market Theatre (Four Quarters, 2007)
Hugh Masekela, Time (Columbia, 2002)
Hugh Masekela, Grazing in the Grass: The Best of Hugh Masekela (Sony, 2001)
Hugh Masekela, Boy's Doin' It (Polygram, 1998)
Hugh Masekela, Black to the Future (Columbia, 1998)
Hugh Masekela, Reconstruction (Motown, 1994)
Hugh Masekela, Hope (Triloka, 1993)
Hugh Masekela, Tomorrow (Warner Bros., 1987)
Herb Alpert/Hugh Masekela, Herb Alpert/Hugh Masekela (A&M, 1978)
Hugh Masekela, The African Connection (Impulse!, 1973)
Hugh Masekela, Grrr (Verve, 1966)
Hugh Masekela, The Emancipation of Hugh Masekela (Chisa, 1964)