Classic interview with Hugh Masekela: “Hey, instead of rhythm and blues, how about ghetto and Bach?”

In 2010, Hugh Masekela, the great South African musician and an inspiration in the cultural and political struggle against apartheid, spoke candidly to Jazzwise's Marcus O'Dair about his continued to fight against the exploitation of the poor and the danger big business posed to the future of the planet. (photo by Tim Dickeson)

“To me,” says Hugh Masekela of the sporting spectacle that recently focused the eyes of the world upon his country’s football stadia, “the international perception, the media perception, is very Marie Antoinette. Let them eat football, and everything will be OK. But that’s not how life works, not after 400 years of turmoil and conflict in South Africa. The country cannot eat football. It was great: the mood was fantastic, it was the best time I think South Africans had ever been together. It’s over now and we’re back to square one.”

His words, delivered – from under a flat cap and over a cognac – on the verandah of an Islington hotel, come not even a month after the end of the World Cup. Yet while international visitors flew home the moment the vuvuzelas fell silent, life for South Africans continues as before. Masekela doesn’t even agree that his country will benefit from improvements in infrastructure brought about in anticipation of the tournament.

“Whose infrastructure?” he asks, rhetorically. “That’s the question. If you fix the highways and the urban centres, and you build a few stadiums, does it improve the quality of life for the other 30 million who are dirt-poor, who are not even reached by the mirth? I mean, they saw it on television, they listened to it on the radio. But it was cake. The only person that was absent was Marie Antoinette.”

Masekela, now just into his seventies, made his name in South Africa a full half century ago: first in the hit musical King Kong, then as a member of the truly seminal Jazz Epistles, the first jazz group in the country to record an album. Yet that act’s career was cruelly truncated by a massacre in the township of Sharpeville, in which the police killed 69 black protestors and injuring many more. Some were shot in the back. When the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress responded by declaring a new policy of armed struggle against the apartheid regime, the government, desperate to prevent a full-scale uprising, placed a ban on all public gatherings. The Jazz Epistles national tour had to be pulled.

Masekela left the country almost immediately, having bribed an official with a bottle of brandy in order to obtain a passport. From this point, he began to emerge on to the international stage. He performed at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, played with Bob Marley, Fela Kuti and Miriam Makeba, and toured the world with Paul Simon’s Graceland project.

As well as releasing classics such as ‘Stimela’, inspired by the coal trains he heard as a child, he gave the world its most prominent anti-apartheid anthem in ‘Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)’. The tune was apparently written on the spot after receiving a birthday card from the ANC leader, smuggled out of prison, in 1985. Years earlier, Masekela even topped the American charts with the feelgood instrumental ‘Grazing In The Grass.’

‘No one group is privileged by nature to oppress another. And if anybody can’t see that, they are mentally deranged’

Yet as well as his virtuoso trumpet and flugelhorn playing and rich singing voice, Masekela’s reputation has long been based on his political views. His vocal opposition to the apartheid regime kept him out of South Africa for a full three decades; he believes he was under FBI surveillance during that time, even in the United States. During that period, family members who had remained at home were hassled by the authorities, while living in conditions he describes as “horrendous… not too far from Nazi Germany or Pinochet’s Chile.”

We all know of specific incidents of apartheid horror: the 1976 massacre in Soweto, for instance, in which perhaps 500 were killed. Journalist and film-maker John Pilger, in his 2006 book Freedom Next Time, details the everyday humiliations that did not make the headlines, including the case of a Robben Island prisoner buried up to his neck and urinated upon by a prison officer, before having his exposed head kicked and punched. Less violent but no less sinister, Pilger also witnessed attempts by the Race Classification Board to divide the population into strict racial categories by assessing hair, eyes, teeth and skull-shape. Such methodology could be described as Kafkaesque – except, as Masekela himself suggests, there is a horrific, real-life precedent in the quasi-scientific hunt for Jews in 1930s Germany.

Masekela was able to return to his homeland only following the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 – after 27 years in prison. To many outsiders, that momentous event, together with the advent of democratic elections four years later, effectively marked the end of South Africa’s troubles. Yet in a previous interview, conducted in the same hotel three months previously, Masekela told me that the emotions triggered by his homecoming were deeply complicated: “It was heartbreaking to see how much more damage had been done to the country, beyond what had been done when I left 30 years before. The population had quadrupled. Society had changed very much.”

“The borders opened, so everyone – from Eastern Europe, Asia, and all over Africa – came to South Africa. They all came to those neighbourhoods, along with the people from the South African hinterland. It was a whole new population that had nothing to do with how the social structure had been before. It was overrun. And the law, the government, didn’t seem to show interest at the time in that loss. It wasn’t a priority for them.”

In 1996, Masekela even had to close his own club, Hugh Masekela’s J&B Joint, “because they started mugging [the customers].” Anyone who has visited South Africa will know that, even today, fear of crime remains high – particularly outside the postcard-friendly centre of Cape Town. Such problems are inevitable, perhaps, in a country in which millions, as Masekela says, remain dirt-poor. What’s shocking, however, is the extent to which the distribution of wealth seems still to follow racial lines. Pilger goes as far as to suggest that apartheid has not died but instead simply manifests itself through economics.

Though vocal in pointing out the problems that continue to blight his country, however, Masekela is also passionately defensive of his homeland. He refuses, for instance, to compare it with post-independence Botswana, where he spent time in the 1980s.

“I don’t compare countries, because I live in a world of music that takes me all over the world. I don’t recognise borders. In fact, I despise the idea of borders because everybody in the world is an immigrant, historically. I think that comparing South Africa, which has only been free for 16 years, with other so-called territories is unfair. Hey, we’re sitting in a country here [England] that’s probably been free for a thousand years. And there are major problems, you know? I can talk about any other country. Let’s take the G8, those countries. Most of them have been free for over 500 years. There are [still] major problems. Why are people expecting South Africa in 16 years to be so miraculous?”

It’s an important point. The new government in South Africa may not have lived up to all its hopes, but the miracle, perhaps, is that it’s there at all. And it is still relatively early days. Yet Masekela is surprisingly reluctant to be cast as a spokesman for his home nation. He points out that he still spends a lot of time not only in the United States and Ghana but also – “strictly for the rain” – in England. “People always want to identify me with South Africa,” he protests, “but South Africa is a microcosm in my life perspective. I object to the abuse of human beings by human beings, in any area.”

“Let me tell you,” he goes on, “my biggest concern is the oppressed communities of the world and the poor communities of the world. And they far outstrip the population of happy people. All over the world, the underclass catches hell. And then the other thing, my other fucking gripe, is the disrespect for nature universally. Those two things for me are more important than the state of South Africa now, because it goes far deeper than that. It’s that the oppressed and poor remain oppressed and poor, and the disrespect for the ocean, for the skies, for the earth, for the water.”

He believes apartheid ended not because of ethics but due to simple economics: “South Africa during apartheid got to a stage where it couldn’t do business anywhere in the world. So the international industrial community, who were making business there, just said to the South African government, ‘Sorry, we can’t be your partners in racism any more, we’ve got to change. And hey, we’ll make more money’.”

Economic pressures, of course, do not always have such a positive outcome. The malignant influence of international big business crops up regularly in his conversation. Though positive about Obama as an individual – “I don’t think there’s ever been a greater potential president for America” – Masekela does not believe that he truly holds the reigns of power: “I don’t think [his race] makes a difference, because if an African American president would make a difference then the condition of African Americans would change overnight. A president in the western world doesn’t have power. It is the powers given to the president, [or] the prime minister, that call the shots.”

Right or wrong, such an outlook can, in print, look unremittingly bleak. Face-to-face, however, Masekela gives a very different impression, sharing a funny mobile phone photo with his tour manager or gently teasing waiting staff. He asks me not to mention the precise details of his complaint, for fear of embarrassing the hotel – and then, eyes glinting mischievously, leans in close to my dictaphone and states the name of the hotel with exaggerated precision. Neither are journalists spared: he has no sooner recognized me from our previous interview than demanded, in a state of mock exhaustion, how much more I can want from him.

“The thing most people don’t know about me,” he announces at one point, “is that potentially, I’m really into comedy.” Then, with the perfect timing so fundamental to the art form, he adds, reassuringly: “I don’t plan to make a living from it.” His tone is utterly deadpan, as if rumours of a career change, even at an age when most contemporaries have long retired, must genuinely be quashed.

In fact, far from being depressed by the state of his country or the planet as a whole, Masekela claims to be “one of the most joyful-feeling people in the world right now.” At the root of this happiness, he explains, is his enthusiasm for his new band – one he is bringing to the UK for several dates this month – alongside the mbaqanga trio Mahotella Queens. “After more than 50 years as a professional, I feel like I’m playing in a dream band. I hope it never goes away.”

He says he hasn’t felt like this since “1959, with the Jazz Epistles”. It’s quite a claim, given that that band included in their ranks such greats as alto player Kippie Moeketsi, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand), but Masekela insists he is entirely serious: “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a band like the one I’m in. If you come to a show in November, you’ll see what I mean.”

This excitement is in part the result of a change in his band’s line-up last year. Alongside longstanding sidemen “Fana” Zulu (electric bass) and Francis Fuster (percussion), the band features three young players from Cape Town, keyboards player Randal Skippers; drummer Lee-Roy Sauls; and guitarist Cameron Ward. It’s a smaller line-up than he previously used, but Masekela insists the six-piece is capable of sounding like a big band. “Except for one or two new songs here and there, we’re playing the same material, but even we can’t recognise it. It’s much more relaxed. Everybody’s an outstanding player. I’ve been practising very hard for the last three years to keep up with these kind of guys. So it’s a completely new picture but it’s more joyous and the excellence is much higher. I think I can even dare to mention the word ‘excellence’ now [with] my band. I feel very privileged to be playing with the guys I’m playing with.”

The admission of a renewed vigour in his practice regime is interesting. Masekela, who actually grew up in an illicit shebeen, or drinking den, has been candid about his own struggles with drink and drugs. In Still Grazing, his book with D. Michael Cheers, Masekela states that he and his band “lived for music, women, and getting high” on Jack Daniels, marijuana and cocaine. On one occasion, the partying got out of hand that he arrived to meet the president of Zambia a full three days late.

Without wanting to play armchair psychologist, it would be possible to trace Masekela’s addictions right back to his childhood. Drinking culture was endemic among miners in his home of Witbank, and he regularly watched rowdy customers in his grandmother’s shebeen. Another explanation for his growing dependence on drink and drugs could be, just as for those miners, the pain of exile.

Yet if exile didn’t help Masekela’s addictions, then neither, in truth, did his sudden fame. His first gigs had taken place in venues so violent they were known, collectively, as the “blood and guts circuit”. Such an initiation could hardly have been further from his life in the States, where he rubbed shoulders with Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, The Grateful Dead, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Marlon Brando among many others. For a period, he apparently shared a dealer with David Crosby of The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash, actually taking his first acid trip at Crosby’s West Coast home.

Masekela admits in his book that rehab, which he began at the end of 1997, was the first time he had played his trumpet sober since the age of 16. He also admits that, at times, the drugs and booze turned him into “an ugly little asshole”. Today, however, he’s a changed man, his new calm signalled by his practice of tai chi – apparently the best thing that ever happened to him.

“Rehab helped me to realise the danger of self-destruction”, he says. Though he denies that it changed him directly as a player, he agrees that going clean has helped him find his mature voice. “I mean, there are great players who practised a lot but they died because of over-indulgence. So I would say that the secret of life is moderation and hard work. Evangelism and purism are a bore.”

Has he always lived by the principles of moderation and hard work? “You mean before? No! I was crazy, man. I was crazy and I was fathomless.”

Happily, the newly fathomable Masekela has lost none of the fire that has informed all his best music, explicitly political or not. In fact, he doesn’t like to refer to any of his material as political, preferring the term “songs of concern”. Besides, he says, the extra-musical influences are hardly even conscious. “My parents were community workers: my father was a health inspector, my mother a social worker. There were always destitute and stray children who slept in our home until they could be placed somewhere. So myself and my sisters hardly ever slept in our beds, but what out parents told us was they don’t know where they’re going to sleep after they leave here, ‘but you’ll always have a home’. I’ve grown up and lived my life from that perspective.”

He goes on: “You can’t come from a community that is under foot, or under boot, and have them as a source for your material, when they’re catching hell, and not say anything about them. And you can’t live in a society that’s oppressed and pretend like it’s not happening. I grew up in a society like that, we grew up in protests and rallies. No one group is privileged by nature to oppress another. And if anybody can’t see that, they are mentally deranged.”

This link to his national culture has always been fundamental to Masekela, though it hasn’t always won the approval of jazz purists. Certainly the genre remains a key thread through his career, going right back to his early love of Clifford Brown and the influence of the film Young Man With A Horn, in which Kirk Douglas portrays Bix Beiderbecke. As a teenager, thanks to the work of priest and anti-apartheid activist Trevor Huddleston, Masekela was even given Louis Armstrong’s old trumpet. Those heroes became real people when Masekela arrived in New York, where he soon met not only Armstrong but Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. And both Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter studied alongside him at the Manhattan School Of Music.

Yet although Masekela originally went to the United States with the aim of becoming a straight bop musician, he took the advice of Miles, Diz and Harry Belafonte not to turn his back on the music of his homeland. Yet jazz was mixed in with more than township dance styles such as mbaqanga, marabi and kwela. After all, Masekela has laudably open ears, and he was away from South Africa for 30 years. In that period, he absorbed everything from Motown and The Mamas And The Papas to the music from Brazil, Nigeria and the Caribbean.

Such an all-embracing approach can encourage lapses of judgment: Masekela’s rapping on 1984’s ‘Don’t Go Lose It Baby’, for instance, is distinctly ill-advised. Yet at its best, the results of such a broad musical outlook are superb. So how does he feel about being profiled in a jazz magazine? After all, he has a high-profile spot at this month’s London Jazz Festival. “My background comes from growing up in the townships,” he replies.

“So-called jazz was a small part of it. I asked Louis Armstrong when I met him, and Miles and Dizzy. I said, do you consider yourself as playing jazz, or bebop? And they said no, man, we play music. You know what I mean? We’re just a sum total of what we’ve heard. I’m the sum total of what I heard.” He says the same of his current band.

“The most basic thing in what we do comes from the townships of the rural areas of South Africa. But we’re also highly skilled musicians. We can play classical music: I went to conservatory, I played in the symphony orchestra. I can still spit out bebop themes and play with bebop players. I can play salsa, I can play Brazilian music, I can play traditional music. I can sing with rural people if I spend a couple of days with them. I’m a sponge. Know what I mean?

“I feel like the worst thing in music that people subject themselves to is to say well, I’m only into bebop, man – or I’m into rock, or I’m only into salsa or rap or house or garden or garage. When people ask me what kind of music I play, I say our music is a cross of impoverished village and criminal township. With a little ghetto in there, and Bach. Hey, instead of rhythm and blues, how about ghetto and Bach?”

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website

If you do not change browser settings, you consent to continue. Learn more

I understand

Call 0800 137201 to subscribe or click here to email the subscriptions team

Get in touch

Jazzwise Magazine,
St. Judes Church,
Dulwich Road, 
Herne Hill,
London, SE24 0PD.

0208 677 0012

Latest Tweets

@lee_re try @KirkdaleBooks or @booksellercrow
Follow Us - @Jazzwise
Our colleagues at @TheJazzCafe have two very fine nights coming up - with US sax don Donny McCaslin and his powerfu…
Follow Us - @Jazzwise


© 2016 MA Business & Leisure Ltd registered in England and Wales number 02923699 Registered office: Jesses Farm, Snow Hill, Dinton, Salisbury, SP3 5HN . Designed By SE24 MEDIA