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Hugh Masekela: Strength in Music and Character

By Published: May 5, 2009


"In the last four years, I've been practicing again—a 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.

Hugh MasekelaProduced 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 tone—playing 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, nurses—community 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 Nkosi—he used to book me at many of his recording sessions—invited 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 Africa—all the great musicians—all 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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