Masekela’s mu­sic still fresh

The Mercury - - FRONT PAGE - Gwen Ansell

WHEN trum­peter, flugel­horn player, singer, com­poser and ac­tivist Hugh Ramapolo Masekela can­celled his ap­pear­ance at the re­cent Jo­han­nes­burg Joy of Jazz Fes­ti­val and his re­main­ing Oc­to­ber shows, tak­ing time out to deal with se­ri­ous health is­sues, fans were forced to re­turn to his recorded opus for re­minders of his unique work. Lis­ten­ing through that half-cen­tury of discs, the na­ture and scope of the trum­peter’s achieve­ment be­comes clear.

Masekela had two early horn he­roes.

The first was part-myth­i­cal: the life of jazz great Bix Bieder­becke fil­tered through Kirk Dou­glas’s act­ing and Harry James’s trum­pet, in the 1950 movie Young Man With A Horn. Masekela saw the film as a school­boy at the Har­lem Bio­scope in Sophi­a­town. The erst­while cho­ris­ter re­solved “then and there to be­come a trum­pet player”.

The sec­ond horn hero, un­sur­pris­ingly, was Miles Davis. And while Masekela’s ac­ces­si­ble, sto­ry­telling style and lyri­cal in­stru­men­tal tone are very dif­fer­ent, he shared one im­por­tant char­ac­ter­is­tic with the Amer­i­can: his life and mu­sic were marked by con­stant rein­ven­tion. As Davis re­port­edly said: “I don’t want to be yes­ter­day’s guy.”

Much has al­ready been writ­ten about Masekela’s life and its land­marks: play­ing in the Hud­dle­ston Jazz Band in the 1950s on a horn do­nated by Louis Arm­strong; per­form­ing in the musical King Kong in the 1960s and at the Guild­hall and then Man­hat­tan schools of mu­sic with singer Miriam Makeba; US pop suc­cesses in the 1970s and then tour­ing with Paul Si­mon’s Grace­land in the 1980s and ’90s.

What is less dis­cussed is the mu­sic, and the in­no­va­tive imag­i­na­tion he has pe­ri­od­i­cally ap­plied to draw it fresh from the flames.

The Hud­dle­ston band, plus time as a side­man and in stage shows, were the tra­di­tional ca­reer path for a young mu­si­cian. But then Masekela broke his first new ground. With fel­low orig­i­nals, in­clud­ing sax­o­phon­ist Kip­pie Moeketsi, pi­anist Ab­dul­lah Ibrahim and trom­bon­ist Jonas Gwangwa, as The Jazz Epis­tles they cut the first LP of mod­ern African jazz in South Africa.

Jazz Epis­tle: Verse One (1960) fea­tured band com­po­si­tions marked by chal­leng­ing im­pro­vi­sa­tion – “a cross be­tween mbaqanga and be­bop”.

Masekela had also joined the pit band and worked as a copy­ist for South Africa’s first black musical, King Kong.

This ex­po­sure at­tracted at­ten­tion to his tal­ent from po­ten­tial pa­trons at home and abroad. Pushed by the hor­rors of the Sharpeville mas­sacre on March 21, 1960, and pulled by do­nated air-tick­ets and schol­ar­ships, Masekela left for Lon­don, and then New York.

In the next two decades, Masekela’s re-vi­sion­ing of his mu­sic took many forms. He found Amer­ica hard, but with wife Miriam Makeba (the mar­riage lasted from 1964-1966), the pro­duc­tion skills of Gwangwa, and the sup­port of Amer­i­can singer Harry Be­la­fonte he pro-ac­tively in­tro­duced au­di­ences to South African mu­sic and the de­struc­tion of apartheid.

On the iron­i­cally ti­tled 1966 live Amer­i­can­i­sa­tion of Ooga Booga, he demon­strated the cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties of “town­ship bop”. Masekela did this by mash­ing up reper­toire and play­ing styles from the South Africa he had left and the Amer­ica he had landed in.

But he was also look­ing in other di­rec­tions: in col­lab­o­ra­tions with other African mu­si­cians; to­wards fu­sion (with The Cru­saders); rock (with The Byrds); and even pop at the Mon­terey Pop Fes­ti­val.

That list cap­tures only a frac­tion of his projects in the 1960s. Some bore in­stant fruit: his 1968 sin­gle, Grazin’ In the Grass, topped the Bill­board Hot 100 list and sold four mil­lion copies; the pre­vi­ous year’s Up Up and Away be­came an in­stant stan­dard.

In 1971, he teamed up with Gwangwa and Cai­phus Se­menya for another pan-African vi­sion, The Union of South Africa. In 1972 he ex­plored a stronger jazz ori­en­ta­tion on Home is Where The Mu­sic Is with, among oth­ers, sax player Dudu Puk­wana, bassist Ed­die Gomez, key­boardist Larry Wil­lis and Se­menya.

But, as the ti­tle of Grazin’ In the Grass sug­gests, Masekela was also be­witched by other as­pects of 1960s counter-cul­ture. He dated his ad­dic­tion back to the al­co­hol-fo­cused so­cial cli­mate of his early play­ing years in South Africa but, by the early 1970s, he ad­mit­ted: “I had de­stroyed my life with drugs and al­co­hol and could not get a gig or a band to­gether. No record­ing com­pany was in­ter­ested in me… “

That de­pres­sion in­spired the song that achieved gen­uinely iconic sta­tus back home in South Africa: the 1974 re­flec­tion on mi­grant labour, Stimela/Coal Train.

For­eign crit­ics have handed that sta­tus to other Masekela songs, such as Soweto Blues, Gold or the much later Bring Him Back Home. Yet, pow­er­ful though those are, it is Stimela, with its slow-burn­ing steam-pis­ton rhythm that cap­tured the hearts of South Africans in the Strug­gle back home, and still does to­day. And of course the lyrics:

There’s a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi /there’s a train that comes from Zambia and Zim­babwe/ from An­gola and Mozam­bique…

Masekela said: “For me songs come like a tidal wave… At this low point, for some rea­son, the tidal wave that whooshed in on me came all the way from the other side of the At­lantic: from Africa; from home.”

Shortly af­ter­wards, Masekela headed off to Ghana, hooked up with Hed­zoleh Soundz, and was soon back in the charts. Stimela re­ceived its first out­ing on the al­bum I Am Not Afraid, with West African and Amer­i­can co-play­ers in­clud­ing pi­anist Joe Sam­ple.

By the mid-’80s, the horn man was back in south­ern Africa, record­ing Tech­nobush at the mo­bile Shifty Stu­dio in Botswana, and per­form­ing for the Medu Arts En­sem­ble with a Botswanan/South African band, Kala­hari. His mu­sic shifted again: roots mbaqanga came strongly to the fore to speak sim­ply and di­rectly to peo­ple openly bat­tling the apartheid regime across the bor­der.

Af­ter lib­er­a­tion and his re­turn home, Masekela once more chose fresh di­rec­tions. In 1997 he ban­ished his ad­dic­tions and be­gan to show­case the vir­tu­oso player he could have been 30 years ear­lier with­out the dis­trac­tions of the West Coast. He fronted big Euro­pean jazz bands, and bench­marked a long musical friend­ship with Larry Wil­lis.

But his shrewd ear for the mu­sic of to­day, rather than yes­ter­day, also took him into younger com­pany. He col­lab­o­rated with cur­rent stars – in­clud­ing singer Than­diswa Mazwai – of­ten en­cour­ag­ing them to take cen­tre stage. Just be­fore the re­cur­rence of his can­cer, he was plan­ning a fes­ti­val col­lab­o­ra­tion with rap­per Riky Rick.

To cap the trans­for­ma­tion, the in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic rebel of the ’60s and ’70s be­came an elder states­man of so­cial ac­tivism. In 2001, he es­tab­lished a foun­da­tion to help other mu­si­cians es­cape ad­dic­tion. Once more he fore­grounded the mu­sic of con­ti­nen­tal Africa, to cam­paign against xeno­pho­bia. And the re­turn of his own ill­ness be­came the cue to ex­hort other men to get checked for prostate can­cer.

Other SA mu­si­cians have suc­ceeded over­seas; many have made one mid-ca­reer im­age switch – but few have shown us, in only one per­son but more than 30 al­bums, so many of the faces and pos­si­bil­i­ties of South African jazz. – The Con­ver­sa­tion

Ansell is an as­so­ciate of the Gor­don In­sti­tute for Busi­ness Science at the Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria


Hugh Masekela per­form­ing dur­ing the 16th Cape Town In­ter­na­tional Jazz Fes­ti­val.


A young Hugh Masekela in the 1950s blow­ing his horn.

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