Revered as a pioneering jazz musician and tireless political campaigner, all his life Hugh Masekela has striven to make tomorrow’s world a better place.
And his fire is undimmed by the passage of time. At 71 he’s as passionate about music and freedom as ever, but where he has previously sought to incorporate modern developments in the sounds he makes, today he says his obsession is with the past.
“My future lies in the past now. I have an album out in South Africa called Everybody Get Happy [Jabulani] which is all classic township wedding songs, singalong songs which are such fun to play and very dance orientated. It’s a revival record – the most South African sounding record I’ve ever done,” he says.
“As a child I was quite obsessed with weddings because they would be times of such joy, very colourful events with the wedding marches and all the women dancing these little choreographies.”
Inevitably, the record is about more than simply having a good time as Hugh Masekela is on a mission to re-awaken African heritage in the minds of his fellow Africans.
“All through time, through slavery, colonialism, religion, industrialisation, apartheid it has been key to instil in the minds of Africans that their heritage is somehow barbaric, savage, backward, rubbish. Going right back, it was always that Africans who were into recreation were lazy natives, so their culture was held up as pagan and no good.
“What is the biggest missing link for most Africans is self-admiration. I would like Africans to rediscover the richness of their past. The good thing is you don’t have to learn it to find it, it’s there within each of us. You only have to open the hornets’ nest for it all to shine.
“People ask me if there are things I would have done differently in my time and I used to think I should have opened an academy of the arts, but I live in one every day. Except it has no building, it is my life.”
Hugh Masekela’s music has always pushed musical boundaries. He studied the piano for seven years before his mentor, the renowned anti-Apartheid leader Trevor Huddleston gave him his first trumpet – itself a gift from the legendary Louis Armstrong.
In his 30 year exile from South Africa he played the 1967 Monterey Pop festival on the same bill as Otis Redding and Janis Joplin, became the first African to top the US charts the next year with Grazin’ in the Grass, earned a Grammy nomination and toured the world with Paul Simon on the controversial Graceland album. Returning to South Africa in 1991 he has supported successive post-Apartheid governments while always exercising his duty to criticise the infant democracy in his native land.
“South African history is largely a migratory history, in fact all of Africa’s history is migratory, which is why I’ve been involved in a show that is all migration songs,” he says. “It’s not just African, we do My Yiddishe Mama which is Lithuanian for instance, and I think we might bring that to England in the near future. Migration is universal.”
As ever, the musical is bound tightly to the social and political. I wonder if Hugh would have been an activist even if he hadn’t been a musician.
“I can’t imagine having been able to do anything except be a musician. Music is the major pre-occupation of my life, the one constant thing.
“As a child I was obsessed with the gramophone to the point that I believed the music was being made by small people that lived inside the gramophone and I said I wanted to go live with those people.
“I’ve been very lucky in that I have managed to live with those people in thought if not reality. It’s a wonderful thing because I didn’t come into music for success or a career, all that stuff has happened in spite of anything I have done. I’ve tried to blow it several times but the music keeps coming back and I just try to express what I know.
“I grew up in a world of strikes and boycotts and marches, it’s what I knew as a child, so that impulse to protest was in me from a young age.”
:• Hugh Masekela plays Lighthouse, Poole on November 19 with the Mahotella Queens.
Queens reign o’er us
The first ladies of mbaqanga, the soulful Zulu jazz that dominated township music in the apartheid era, the Mahotella Queens had their first hit in 1964.
Originally a five-piece backing group for singer Simon ‘Mahlathini’ Nkabinde – the King of the Groaners – the Queens have operated as a trio since 1986 when Hilda Tloubatla, Nobesuthu Mbadu and Mildred Mangxola came together to capitalise on the renewal of interest in South African music in the wake of Paul Simon’s landmark Graceland album.
Since Mahlathini’s death in 1999 the Queens – all of them grandmothers and in their 60s – have worked to keep his music and memory alive with a commercially successful series of socially aware albums.
• First published in Bournemouth Daily Echo.