Hugh Masekela: Strength in Music and Character

R.J. DeLuke By

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This article was first published at All About Jazz in May 2009.

"I think it is incumbent, not just on every artist, but every person who has as their source communities that are disadvantaged, to give back," says Hugh Masekela, antiapartheid champion, friend of the downtrodden and musician extraordinaire who is still going strong at the age of 70. "If you don't give back, I think you end up somewhere down the line looking at yourself in a mirror that will eventually crack."

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 globe—especially in Africa—who 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 people—not just governmental freedom, but freedom from poverty and the feeling of hopelessness.

"I learned a lot from people like Dizzy Gillespie, 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."

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 music—specifically his first trumpet given to him at the age of 14—kept 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."

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, 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.

"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." Phola

"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.

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 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."



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.'

"That's part of the mantra of my life... So she really nurtured me into growth and gave us and my two younger sisters traditional values which I don't think exist anymore."

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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