What were the weapons in the arsenal of a man who survived a vicious racial dictatorship to emerge as an international ambassador for his people and his craft?
In the case of Hugh Masekela, who returned to the ancestors on January 23, 2018, the answer is two-part: a gramophone, and a Louis Armstrong trumpet.
Born outside Johannesburg in 1939, Masekela began playing music at age three--by way of winding his grandmother's gramophone and singing along. In his career, his own music would fuse South African mbaqanga, bebop, funk, and Nigerian Afrobeat. His prolific six decades of making music took him around the world and granted him the personal victories of playing with such titans Abdullah Ibrahim, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Zensi Miriam Makeba, and Fela Anikulapo Kuti. His single “Grazing in the Grass” in the early 1970s topped the Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash” on the US charts.
Humble and down-to-earth, yet deeply intelligent with a sweeping international perspective on art, politics, economics, and justice, Masekela was difficult to put in a single category. He didn’t even call himself a jazz musician.
After the Neo-Nazi apartheid regime banned his music, Masekela was forced to live in exile. He compared the effects of Apartheid to the effects of the European Holocaust against West and Central Africa, in that each operated by “making people lose their identity—that’s why families were broken up, so people lose their roots and self-esteem…. But it’s very difficult to take away in-grown culture from a person. It has failed throughout the ages.”
As if living in exile and the domestic banning of his music weren’t enough repression, his 1969 album Masekela was returned by a North American distributor “because they felt it was too radical.” But that didn’t make him hesitate to work with and befriend other radical artists and activists, including the late, brilliant Nigerian co-founder of Afrobeat, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. He eventually toured internationally with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Zensi Miriam Makeba, and Ray Phiri, was featured in the 2003 documentary Amandla!, released the autobiography Still Grazing, and remained active in humanitarian causes such as the Lunchbox Fund which serves meals to students at Soweto schools.
I was privileged to interview Hugh Masekela by telephone in September, 2000 before he performed in Edmonton, and meet him when he arrived. If you go to MFGalaxy.org and click today’s show notes, you’ll find a playlist of Hugh Masekela songs and videos that speak for themselves or accompany parts of our conversation.