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Remembering Hugh Masekela

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Added 6th March 2018 12:08 PM

Masekela’s long association with jazz and the outside world was initiated at 14 years

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Masekela’s long association with jazz and the outside world was initiated at 14 years

By Amb. Kintu Nyago

When Hugh Masekela first performed in Uganda, about 15 years ago, in a sellout concert, partly sponsored  by the New Vision, William Pike interviewed him.

The old man cautioned against violence. Noting that the mimicking of the African American gangster rap artists violent behaviour was un African and at odds with the spirit of Ubuntu (Obuntu Bulaamu)!

Indeed, Masekela was a highly exposed personality. For as a South African who had been exiled from Apartheid, he had lived most of his life in the US, where, given his resilience, he had thrived and experienced the fabled “from rags to riches” American Dream!

Born in 1939, in a middle class African family in Witbank, Masekela’s long association with jazz and the outside world was initiated at 14 years; he received a trumpet, from the famed African American jazz artist, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. This donation was arranged and delivered by a famous family friend, the iconic anti-Apartheid churchman, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston.

By 1959, Masekela with a fellow youngster, now famous Cape Townian jazz artist Abdalla Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), formed the first African jazz band, The Jazz Epistles, to record an LP.  

Following the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, and Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress’s forming Umkhoto we Sizwe to launch their armed struggle, the Apartheid regime clamped down. This forced Masekela, with Huddleston’s support, to flee to exile in London, where he joined the Guildhall School of Music. Soon after, with African American civil rights leader and calypso singer Harry Belafonte’s intervention, he secured a bursary to study jazz at New York’s Manhattan School of Music. In 1964, he married fellow South African exiled musician Miriam Makeba. 

Masekela’s musical success largely resulted from his focus, education and conscious decision to trace his Africanity in his music. A music of protest, that reflected the struggles of his people in South Africa, against Apartheid.  The unique Africanity of Masekela’s jazz, full of melody and rhythm reflected in his 1968 number one US Pop hit record, “Grazing in the Grass”. This sold a cool four million records, in turn, making him an instant global celebrity.

Masekela associated with progressive causes, including Muhammad Ali’s 1974, Zaire, Rumble in the Jungle, fight where he performed with a number of celebrity artists that included his former wife Makeba and the King of Soul, James Brown. Ever keen to learn and self-improve, Masekela visited and associated with key African musicians that included the Congo’s legendery Le Grand Maitre  Luambo Makiadi (Franco) and the Lagos-based Nigerian king of Afrobeat and protest music, Fela Anikulapo-Ransome Kuti! Indeed, he was a regular, at the latter’s famed Shrine nightclub and Kalakuta Republic home.

One of Masekala’s most moving protest song is Stimela (Coal train in Zulu/Xhosa). It recounts the exploitative political economy, during Apartheid, of the South African migrant labour system the serviced the mines of Johannesburg.  And in part is states as follows:

“There is a train that comes from….all the hinterland of Southern and Central Africa. This train carries young and old, African men. Who are conscripted to come and work on contract in the golden mineral mines of Johnnesburg…, sixteen hours or more a day for almost no pay…”

Masekela, a regular in New York, where he was well liked, had the gift of communicating effectively, on stage, in humorous small talk with his audience. And was an agile, talented performer and showman who for instance acted, puffed and hissed, indeed sounded like a real Coal Train of yesteryears, in the above song on stage!  Another of his signature songs, is his 1987 release, “Bring Back Nelson Mandela”!  In which he demanded from the Boer regime to unconditionally release Nelson Mandela from prison, so that he could walk free, hand in hand with his wife Winnie, “…in the Streets of Soweto…!

Masekela, like his colleagues, Makiadi, Fella and Makeba, are African musical cultural institutions, who would be ashamed by the violence of some of our young musicians. It would help if the latter draw inspiration and emulate the former’s innumerable professional positive attributes.

The writer is a diplomat and NRM Cadre

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