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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.

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