Despite more than three decades on wax, pianist Hotep Idris Galeta has largely escaped the public eye. Perhaps that's not too much of a surprise, given his rather unassuming nature and the fact that he's never had much of an itch for the spotlight.
Galeta (b. June 7, 1941) grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. During his teenage years he was drawn into a very active nucleus of South African jazz musicians. Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand) served as an early mentor; Galeta performed with local stars including Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Gertze, and Makaya Ntoshoko. But by the turn of the '60s, South Africa had institutionalized apartheid and instituted martial law, driving most of these musicians abroad.
After a year in London with a number of South African expatriates, Galeta traveled to the United States, where he expanded his horizons through both formal and informal education. For two years in the late '60s, he played in Hugh Masekela's band, including a notable performance at the notorious 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival. His musical journey took him many places, including a later stint with Masekela and a productive association with Jackie McLean. He served on the faculty of the University of Hartford's Hartt College of Music in Connecticut and continues to emphasize music education to this day.
Among notable recordings from the '90s, Mario Pavone's Toulon Days stands as a high water mark. It features the inspired composition "Monk In Soweto" (to resurface later) and brought a young and unsigned Joshua Redman to the public eye. Around this time, Galeta finally returned to South Africa optimistic about country's future after 30 intervening years of apartheid.
His third record as a leader, Malay Tone Poem , came out last year on South Africa's Sheer Sound label. Produced by Zim Ngqawana and featuring the Safro Jazz Quintet, this date includes ten original compositions. A tour de force of creative post bop, Malay Tone Poem was recognized as a three-way nominee for the South African Music Awards. It pointedly signals the vision and potential of both Hotep Idris Galeta and contemporary South African jazz.
This interview was conducted by email in June, 2003.
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All About Jazz: Your early exposure to jazz musicians in Cape Town played a major role in your musical development. Whom do you remember most vividly from this period? How did these experiences fit into the situation in South Africa at the time?
Hotep Galeta: In the fifties there were quite a number of older musicians who influenced my early jazz education. The bassist Lamie Zukufu exposed me to the music of Bud Powell and Bird when I was sixteen years old.
As a young musician I later met Dollar Brand (now known as Abdullah Ibrahim), who also played a significant role in my early musical development, both as a friend and as a role model. He was the one who exposed me to the music of Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins. Unlike his laid back style of playing today, Abdullah's music during that period was extremely avant-garde, fiery and revolutionary, due to his artistic reactions to the oppressive political conditions that started to evolve at the beginning of legislated draconian apartheid racist-fascist laws.
Most of us at that time played in the hard bop tradition, with an added mixture of South African traditional music thrown in. I was seriously into the music of Bobby Timmons and Horace Silver. I also hung out with the pianist Chris McGregor and the saxophonist Dudu Pukwana a lot. These two musicians opened my ears to the music of Herbie Nichols and Ornette Coleman, which changed my musical concepts quite drastically.
By that time I had, like many others, become increasingly involved with the underground struggle against the regime.
AAJ: Things were very hot in South Africa in 1961. In the aftermath of Sharpeville, tensions were painfully high. Everyone was leaving. How did you get out of the country, and what sort of South African community did you find abroad in London and elsewhere?
HG: When things became too hot, a lot of us departed. I left by boat for Southampton, England in 1961 under an assumed name with the assistance of underground connections. This was shortly after the Sharpeville massacre, the first state of emergency, the banning of the ANC and other political parties, and the imposition of martial law.
When I arrived in England I headed for London, where I hooked up with some members of the cast of the South African jazz opera "King Kong" that had been playing at one of the theatres in London's West End for the past year. This eased the feelings of loneliness in a strange environment.
I stayed in London for about a year. In fact that is where I heard my first live American jazz. I attended a John Coltrane concert one evening that featured Reggie Workman on bass and Eric Dolphy on alto and bass clarinet. "My Favorite Things"... I was in heaven!
I arrived in New York in the summer of 1962. Somehow I slowly lost touch with the musicians from home. Chris McGregor and Dudu Pukwana eventually left South Africa a few years later with their quintet called the Blue Notes, They were to create a huge impact upon the English and European jazz scene with their fiery brand of South African avant-garde jazz.
AAJ: What made you leave the name Cecil Barnard behind?
HG: I legally changed my name to Hotep Idris Galeta in the late '80s when I embarked upon a personal spiritual quest. In fact, my traditional last name is Galeta, but my father's Christian name was Barnard... so folks used to call me Cecil Barnard, which is the name I used when I exited South Africa.
My personal spiritual journey was also the result of me embracing and exploring aspects within the Islamic mystical traditions called Sufism. In Cape Town, where I grew up, I was exposed to this way of life as a youngster because we have quite a large Muslim community here. There are a few Sufi orders within these socio-religious structures that impacted deeply upon me early in my life. Some of my family belonged to these orders.
It is quite common in South African society, particularly in the communities where I come from, to have family members who are Christians and Muslims. This mystical way of life and philosophy was appealing because music, dance and a holistic approach to life played a central role as the catalyst in the rituals to expand one's consciousness.
The central philosophy also stressed that in essence that all belief systems and humanity are connected to and are guided by one central cosmic intelligence, whatever name we would like to call it. I therefore feel at home in all the major planetary belief systems and religious philosophies, as long as they do not reflect a narrow minded fundamentalist point of view or dogmatic approach to life and the pursuit of happiness. In a nutshell that's how I'd like to leave it.
AAJ: Over the 35 years you've been active in recording, you've covered a lot of ground. In addition to a few excursions outside the boundaries of jazz, you spent a lot of time with Hugh Masekela and Jackie McLean. How did you get together with these two musicians?
HG: I first met Hugh Masekela in the late '50s when he was a member of a group called The Jazz Epistles. This band included Abdullah Ibrahim on piano, Kippie Moketsie on alto sax, Jonas Gwangwa on trombone, Johnny Gertse on bass, and Makaya Ntshoko on drums. I think the fact that because we both came from this South African background, and that we love and play jazz but could also play our own traditional music, was the catalyst for us working so well together.
I've had two stints in Hugh's band. One that began in 1967-68 and the again in 1981-82. It was during this last stint that Rene McLean was in the band and he introduced me to his father, Jackie. To make a long story short, I began teaching at the University of Hartford's Hartt School of Music's African American Music Department in 1985 after being invited by Jackie McLean to become part of the jazz instruction faculty. I also joined his band during that period and stayed with the band and at Hartt for eight years.
AAJ: What was most memorable about your experience with Jackie McLean?
HG: Playing and working with Jackie, who is undoubtedly one of the great living masters of this music, was a real blessing. This was indeed the highlight in my musical development for which I am forever grateful. He is a great musician, a great teacher, and a wonderful human being.
My relationship with Jackie McLean was quite interesting on and off the bandstand. Since both of us were living in Hartford, we use to spend a lot of time together whenever we could. I would go over to his house quite often to hang out. There we would play and talk about music. Jackie was always looking for new approaches to deal with musical expression. Since he also had a great interest in ancient African history, we used to have deep discussions concerning issues related to that that topic. I shared some of my experiences growing up in South Africa with him, particularly those stories that had been passed down to me by the elders in our communities.
He told me this funny story once. Jackie, of course, grew up on Sugar Hill in Harlem. He said that as a teenager. he use to go to Bud Powell's house for lessons after his high school classes every day. On one particular day when Bud opened the door, he looked down the hallway and saw Monk sitting in an armchair, fast asleep. Bud whispered to him, "Monk's sleeping! Come back tomorrow afternoon."
Naturally he returned the next day at the same time, knocked on the door. Bud opened it again, and as he looked down the hallway, there was Monk sitting in the armchair in the same position he saw him the previous day, still fast asleep. Bud said to him, "Monk's still sleeping." It was this sharing of experiences and camaraderie that made our relationship so special.
AAJ: I think it's important for you to touch on the emotions you experienced upon your return to South Africa. What was it like to come back, and how well did you adjust?
HG: I was sad to leave the band in 1991, but I really wanted to come back to South Africa when I saw that the regime was buckling under internal and external pressure and that a new era was at hand. Coming back home was an emotional experience. I had been gone for quite a long time and had to get used to a different mindset which sometimes made me feel that I was from a different galaxy. It was difficult at first, but I am now fully integrated back into the culture.
AAJ: How do you think your family adjusted to the move? What do you miss most from abroad?
HG: My two eldest children stayed behind in the U.S. My eldest son lives in L.A. he is 35 and my daughter just graduated from College in Atlanta she is 21. I miss them, hence I try to make that 17-hour plane trip about once a year to visit them.