Remembering South African jazz legend Hugh Masekela

Saeed Saeed remembers South Africa’s ‘father of jazz’, a meeting with the music legend at Mawazine Festival, and his enduring love of Africa

(FILES) This file photo taken on November 15, 2008 shows South African jazz great Hugh Masekela performing a mournful solo of one her songs, as hundreds of people paid their last respects in Johannesburg to music legend and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba.
South African jazz legend Hugh Masekela has died aged 78, his family announced on January 23, 2018, triggering an outpouring of tributes to his music, his long career and his anti-apartheid activism. / AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER JOE
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South African jazz musician Hugh Masekela has died at the age of 78.

The news was announced through his family Tuesday morning (UAE time), who stated that Masekela “passed peacefully” at home in Johannesburg after a decade-long battle with prostate cancer.

Masekela’s death will be especially felt by his UAE fans who were looking forward to his performance at Dubai Opera. Originally set for December 11, it was rescheduled to March 8 after the trumpeter announced he would undergo treatment.

When Masekela said last month he would return to live performances, we chalked the experience down to another one of life’s challenges which he had overcome. Sadly this was not the case and the world will no longer will experience the sheer soul and exuberance of his live performances.

I was fortunate enough to attend a show in 2014 as part of the Mawazine Festival in the Moroccan capital of Rabat.

It was a late May evening made chilly by the winds that breezed through the beachside stage. But it only took a few minutes before Masekela – clad in black with his trademark colourful tie – warmed up the audience with sultry takes of Mwanayu Wakula and Stimela before unleashing his enduring hit Grazing in the Grass, which had the 15,000-strong crowd swaying.

He was quieter and more reflective when we met for our scheduled midnight chat backstage. Ever the Pan-Africanist, he expressed pleasure at being interviewed by a fellow African (I am of Eritrean background).

I eventually realised this wasn’t going to be a standard interview. This was Bra Hugh’s show, so I mentally threw my questions away and went with whatever was on his mind. Which as it turned out, was a lot of things, and over the space of 20 minutes we covered all sorts of topics, from his childhood to the creatively fertile period of the ’60’s to his friendship with the late South African leader and activist Nelson Mandela.

When it came to his current output, Masekela was comfortable with his small yet dedicated fan base. With the release of his then new album, Playing at Work, he said he no longer tracked their success. "I am not in that strata of bestsellers. When I make a record, I no longer monitor it. The last album I made was Jabulani, which is a celebration of South African wedding songs, and I didn't even know that it was nominated for a Grammy."

That relative obscurity was comforting, he admitted, in that it allowed him to focus solely on his work with an unbridled enthusiasm that stemmed back to his childhood. Born in KwaGuqa Township in South Africa’s coal mining city of Witbank, Masekela said he fell in love with music not through an instrument but from the gramophone instead. “I would be singing along all the time and my mother would tell her friends, when he would come home for tea, that she was worried about her child [who] was always singing… I was bewitched by music and I never wanted to be healed,” he recalled.

After playing the piano as a child, he switched to the trumpet at the age of 14 after watching the film Young Man with a Horn, with Kirk Douglas's character loosely based on the jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke. It was not so much the film but the score by American trumpeter Harry James that moved Masekela. "He had one of the most beautiful tones and he could make you cry when playing a sad song."

By the age of 20, Masekela formed The Jazz Epistles, which in 1959 went on to become one of the first African jazz groups to record an album and sell out shows across Johannesburg and Cape Town.

With the increased repression by the South African apartheid government, Masekela landed a scholarship to London’s Guildhall School of Music before going to New York to study classical trumpet from 1960 to 1964 and to perfect his technique under the guidance of the late Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong.

Despite a short-lived marriage with fellow South African music luminary Miriam Makeba, Masekela describes that time in the United States in the ’60s as his favourite period.It was also the time when he performed alongside some of rock’s greatest artists; as part of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival he shared the stage with the likes of Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix and The Who.

“Everything was joyous. It was the most wonderful time in the history of human beings. They were the most generous and the most relaxed and at their highest,” he said. “It was a time of love and that scared the establishment.” Despite US and European acclaim, he never lost sight of the struggle in South Africa and he used his profile and talent to become a human rights advocate.

His stirring 1987 anti-apartheid anthem, Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela), was banned in South Africa upon release but helped to shed light on the plight of his homeland among an international audience.

Masekela’s friendship with Mandela stems from a deeper family connection; his sister Barbara Maskela was Mandela’s former chief of staff while Winnie Mandela trained his mother in social work.

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It was Mandela’s sense of humour that Masekela appreciated the most. “He would say, ‘People would look at me for politics but they don’t know that I am actually an expert on napping’,” he recalled. “Mandela would say, “Let me tell you about napping, if you go and lie down that’s not napping, that’s sleeping. When you wake up and you realise that you were asleep, now that’s a nap my friend.’”

Masekela was already undergoing treatment for prostate cancer at the time of our interview. He was concerned for future generations of Africans and had started setting up educational institutes across the continent. "Religion, politics and conquest have convinced us that our heritage is backwards, barbaric or primitive," he said. "If we are not careful then the next generation of Africans, who are in their teens now will not remember African languages. So heritage restoration is my obsession right now."

With that, we bade farewell and, with yesterday’s sad news, I realised that as a relatively young African, it is now the time for us to step up and play our part.