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Hugh Masekela: Strength in Music and Character

By Published: May 5, 2009
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Trying to Go Home

"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."

Hugh MasekelaBack 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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African Heritage

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.

Hugh 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 lives—to 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 tapestry—something to be savored.

Selected Discography

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)

Photo Credit

Bottom: REGIERUNGonline/Grabowsky

Featured Story: REGIERUNGonline/Grabowsky

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