“Music invaded me. It’s been my obsession, my whole life and it still is”

Hugh Ramopolo Masekela

At a recent sell-out concert in London, Hugh Masekela demonstrated that he can still move like a man half his age and knows how to work a crowd. He talks to Global about growing up under the apartheid regime, how the pull of the American jazz scene lured him away from his homeland, and why being back in South Africa is bringing him such joy and musical satisfaction once again.

Hugh Masekela saunters in from the wings, his horn in his hand. When he reaches centre stage, he bends and gracefully touches his toes, just because he can. The audience roars with approval and admiration – how many septuagenarians are capable of such a show of agility? But he doesn’t stop there.

During the up-tempo numbers, he grinds his way down into a squatting position, knees pumping in and out as he slowly moves up and down, matching step for step the younger men in his band. The crowd loves it – and he knows they do – cheering and clapping every time. So where, at the ripe old age of 72, does he get his energy from? That’s a secret Masekela is reluctant to divulge: “It’s none of your business,” he tells me curtly, down the line from Johannesburg, a couple of weeks before his sell-out appearance at London’s Barbican.

The concert marked the start of Commonwealth Week and is part of a year-long celebration of diversity within this association of 54 countries, encapsulated in the theme ‘Connecting Cultures’. It’s hard to think of a better example of the Commonwealth’s cultural connectivity than Masekela. He’s collaborated with a diverse range of artists from Bob Marley to Paul Simon, from Fela Kuti to the London Symphony Orchestra. And his music blends jazz, swing, soul, funk and reggae with the township grooves he heard as a child. “Where I grew up was one of South Africa’s melting pots – everything from all around South Africa and the surrounding countries,” Masekela says. “The migrant labourers came through there, so every weekend was a carnival. You couldn’t have had a better life, as oppressed as we were.”

Masekela was born in 1939 and raised in Kwa-Guqa Township, Witbank. “I grew up with music as an infant and music invaded me, you know, like in The Exorcist. It’s been my obsession, my whole life and it still is,” he says. And watching him on stage it’s easy to see what he means. From the clear, pure tone of his flugelhorn to his rasping, emotion-filled vocals, he is every inch the musician. Even when playing the cowbell – hopping around, beating out complex rhythmical sequences – his musicality shines through.

When he was just nine years old, the National Party introduced the apartheid system of racial segregation. Rallies, riots and boycotts became the backdrop to his youth. “What you have to understand is that we grew up in an environment where we worked on beating the system. From 1653, when the first Europeans came here, until 1994, that was the main focus of native South Africans. And after 350 years we finally got to the point where we had the first day of peace,” he says.

Masekela started playing the trumpet at the age of 14. His first instrument was given to him by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston – then a parish priest in Sophiatown, later a stalwart of the anti-apartheid movement – and he joined the clergyman’s eponymous Jazz Band. “Huddleston’s greatest strength was that he stood against injustice against anybody. It wasn’t about black or white, he was just shocked that the people of Sophiatown were going through the shit they were going through,” explains Masekela.

So how much of an influence was Huddleston on Masekela the activist? “I’m not an activist, I’m a musician,” he replies. “People seem to think that musicians have a role to play or that musicians are responsible for social change. I don’t believe that.” But this assertion doesn’t quite ring true. His back catalogue includes songs like ‘Soweto Blues’, which chronicles the 1976 student uprising in that South African township; ‘Stimela: The Coal Train’, detailing the travails of migrants working in Johannesburg’s gold mines; and the anthemic ‘Bring Him Back Home’, a plea for the release of Nelson Mandela. On stage, his band playing quietly in the background, he delivers a sermon on mankind’s exploitation of the natural environment. Masekela is both a musician and an activist.

Huddleston helped Masekela secure a place at London’s Guildhall School of Music. He left South Africa in 1960 and despite the warmth of feeling he has towards his homeland, it wasn’t difficult for him to leave. “It was the best experience,” he says. “I’d been working on leaving South Africa since I was a little child. I got Huddleston to get me a scholarship so that I could leave South Africa, because I just wanted to come and learn music from the best teachers and they were in New York.” So the UK was only a stopping point on his way to America. “I came at the best time to New York. It was the golden age of the jazz clubs and I spent most of my time there. I also went to the Manhattan School of Music and met all the young musicians who were burgeoning into the next generation, like Herbie Hancock and [acclaimed jazz bassist] Ron Carter.”

Masekela spent 30 years in exile, moving to Guinea in the early 1970s, then Botswana in 1981 and finally back to the UK in 1985. Along with Miriam Makeba (his wife for a few years in the mid-60s) and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Masekela provided the soundtrack to the anti-apartheid struggle. “I think [we] got noticed by the world because we didn’t adopt any other cultural style. We projected the music of our country. Not for a political reason but [because] we came from there, we came from our people,” he says, downplaying once again the significance of his role in South Africa’s emancipation.

Returning to the country of his birth was something Masekela never expected to be able to do, so when the system of apartheid began to be dismantled in the early 1990s, he seized the opportunity to go home. “The two greatest things that ever happened in my life was to leave South Africa and to come back to South Africa. That to me is the paradox of my life,” he says. His greatest joy was to be able to play with South African musicians again, with whom he feels he has an innate connection and understanding. “When I was overseas I had to write down music, analyse it and compartmentalise it for me to be able to play with other people. In South Africa, we would play music naturally. So to have the opportunity to come back and just be able to zero in on what you grew up with without having to explain it, you can’t beat that.”

Interview by Elissa Jobson

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Hugh Ramopolo Masekela is the legendary South African jazz musician


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