Hugh Masekela: Strength in Music and Character
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."
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 Armstrong did, 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."