Hugh Masekela, “rest in power”

Hugh Masekela died today at age 78, in Johannesburg, South Africa, a place he called home.

His family let the world know…

It is with profound sorrow that the family of Ramapolo Hugh Masekela announce his passing. After a protracted and courageous battle with prostate cancer, he passed peacefully, surrounded by his family.

A loving father, brother, grandfather and friend, our hearts beat with profound loss.  Hugh’s global and activist contribution to and participation in the areas of music, theatre, and the arts in general is contained in the minds and memory of millions across 6 continents and we are blessed and grateful to be part of a life and ever-expanding legacy of love, sharing and vanguard creativity that spans the time and space of 6 decades.  Rest in power beloved, you are forever in our hearts.

I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Masekela sometime in the ‘90s on one of his visits to Humboldt. I spoke with him just after he arrived in New York from South Africa for one of many extensive tours of the states.

We skipped through most of his long career in music, one that took him away from Africa, into exile for years back and forth between his home in Africa, and around the world over the course of long career. He wrote and recorded a large body of work and played with many great musicians. (For details, try this New York Times obit, or this one in Rolling Stone.) We started with talk of home.


Where is home for you?

I live outside Johannesburg on a farm.

Are the musicians in your band from South Africa too?

Yeah, all of them.

Is your U.S. tour in connection with a new record?

Well, we come here almost every year. We came last year but only for a short tour of the East Coast. There are many venues and a lot of festivals that like our music and they ask us to come to the states. The record promotion is just part of it.


You call your latest album Black to the Future. Is it a look forward?

In South Africa we have a white past. We were run by whites for 350 years and it’s just a joy to be able to have a government of the majority of the people and to actually live in an environment where being black is not illegal. The name is a pun on Back to the Future, which was a movie, but you know it’s a fact of life in South Africa that the future has to be lived with major consideration and reparation for black lives.

Promise of the Future,

As I recall, your first hit record in America was a called Promise of the Future, so you’ve always been looking forward to a brighter day.

Doesn’t everybody want to live with hope for a better future? You certainly can’t improve the past, it’s already happened. Coming from a community that was oppressed for such a long time you always must look towards the future. With the damage that has been done, we’re working on the future. We’re very future focused and future oriented.

Where are things going in the future of South Africa?

I’m not a prophet, but we’re hoping for it to be a great country and for people to be able to take advantage of new found opportunities and make it a wonderful place. We’re working on making it a better place but even though we are free, it’s not a movie. The realities of the past are with us and we have to improve, but it is a country with great potential.

Do you think things changing for the better?

Let me say that everybody is working on change. People who were privileged before don’t suddenly turn around and say, ‘We’re sorry.’ Of course we had a lot of solidarity and help from the world, but now after we’ve voted, everybody figures that we are okay now and we’ve lost a lot of that solidarity support. But life in certain ls much more enjoyable because we’re not being harassed by cops and death squads and the opportunity is there for us to improve our lives. That in itself is much better than what we had before.

What do you see as the role of the musicians in all of this?

I think a musician is just part of the community now. We’ve always tried to be informative through our access to the broadcasting media, but now it is just as a part of the whole community. In the end I think human beings should live to create a life of freedom, peace and joy. Musicians who are socially conscious should try to make people aware of the necessity of love and peace and joy and hopefully prosperity as well. 

Love is a very necessary ingredient in the lives of human beings. We are a strange breed, as you can tell by some of the deeds that human beings pull off. So I think that love for life, for each other, for the human species, as opposed to romantic love, that is an important message to harp on, especially for our children.

Human beings are inherently very vengeful and violent people. So for example I think that our President and his team were amazing in achieving the kind of peace that we live under in South Africa given our past circumstances. That is a very important thing, because if there is any place where there should be a war in the world right now, it’s in South Africa. And after 350 years of war here, we have seen out first five years of living in peace. There is a great potential for an understanding of how you can live a life in love even when others have wronged you. We hope it may set an example for the rest of the world. I think a musician can play a role in that.

Your music played an important part in the battle against apartheid. How has your role changed now it has ended?

My role hasn’t changed, I never looked at it as a role.I was just part of the 14 million oppressed people and if I was a garbage man I would have had the same feelings. I don’t think I could have expressed them through collecting garbage, it just happened that I worked in a profession where I had access to the media and could help make people aware of what’s happening. My talents come from my people. As my grandmother told me, I was born naked, I didn’t bring any money, any music, any talent, I didn’t have anywhere to live. Everything I have I inherited from the people I come from and their music. So I owed it to them to talk about their trials and tribulations. It wasn’t a role, it was an obligation.

At the beginning of your music career you were in a band called the Father Huddleston Orchestra.

I was the founder of the band.


Who was Father Huddleston?

Bishop Trevor Huddleston was one of the greatest foes of apartheid. He was deported from South Africa in 1955 by Hendrik Verwoerd, who was then Minister of Native Affairs and later became the chief architect of apartheid.

Bishop Huddleston was the chaplain of my boarding school. He got me my first trumpet. He asked me one day, ‘What do you really want to be, what do you want to do?’ because I was always in trouble with the authorities.

I had seen a movie about Bix Beiderbecke called Young Man With a Horn

I said, ‘Father, if I could get a trumpet, I wouldn’t bother anybody anymore. And he got me a second-hand trumpet and a teacher, and in two months time I was beginning to play the trumpet.

Other kids also asked for instruments and he raised the monies and soon we had the Trevor Huddleston Band.

So, this was the school band at St. Peter’s?

Yes, the high school band. We were the first youth band in South Africa ever.

Were you playing American jazz then?

No, we played our own compositions. We had a fantastic repertoire of South African band music and American music, we were great record collectors. South Africa is a country of record collectors, so we had heard all of the great music from America, but we also composed our own songs.

Would you say your own things were a combination of African music and American jazz?

Well, we were not thinking like that, we were just writing songs. We had a better knowledge of American music than most Americans, so we had libraries of African music and American music. We were a product of that experience and we produced our own hybrid, but when we composed, we didn’t say, ‘I’m now composing a song combining African music with American music.

When Huddleston was deported from South Africa he came and met with Louis Armstrong and told him about the band he had started, and Louis Armstrong sent us one of his trumpets, which of course got us fantastic media coverage.

Was Huddleston partly responsible for arranging for you to come to America to study?

No, but he helped me to come to England to study music at the Guildhall School of Music. Miriam Makeba was in the states and she helped me along with Belafonte, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, they all helped me come and study in the states.

And my interests in music were sort of crisscrossed by many prominent people in music and politics. Yehudi Menuhin and Johnny Dankworth had been deported from South Africa when they visited there. Johnny Dankworth was married to Cleo Laine.

It was a mixed marriage, which was illegal in South Africa, and he and Yehudi Menuhin both hung out with blacks. Huddleston appealed to them to help me to get a scholarship to study in England, which they did.

Did you want to leave because of what was going on politically or was it more just to improve your playing?

I wanted to leave South Africa from the time I started playing, when I was 13 years old. I wanted to have the same access to teachers as someone like a Louis Armstrong or a Dizzy Gillespie or Clifford Brown, Miles Davis or a Lee Morgan or Chet Baker. I was after excellence.

So it wasn’t just politics…

I couldn’t get what I wanted because it was politically impossible. The two things were interrelated.

But after you left, you were not allowed to come back?

It was impossible to come back because when I came [to America], the people who had helped me, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, people like that were fundraisers for the civil rights movement in America and in South Africa, people like Mandela and all my schoolmates were being put in jail or were leaving the country.

We were increasingly making Americans aware of what was happening in South Africa, which didn’t endear us to our government. I would have been a masochist to try and condemn the government from overseas and then try to go home.

After 1962 my passport was never renewed. I took it back for renewal, but they never renewed it. I had to make due.

Out of the one and a half million people who left South Africa because of apartheid, only 35,000 of us have returned. Others have established their lives overseas, but some of us were obsessed with our freedom and going back home.

Didn’t you live in Botswana for awhile to be near South Africa?

I lived there for like four years and the death squads came and killed most of my friends, so I had to leave and go into the second exile.


When did you finally go back?

In 1990.

Did you settle right back in?

No, I had to acclimatize and find a means of living, I had to find my place in South Africa.

But your music was well known there already, so you had a start…

Of course. I was in demand, but it doesn’t mean anything, because there were other obstacles. It wasn’t the same as here: There were no booking agencies, there were not enough venues. I had to live a life that I was not accustomed to. Over here I was kind of spoiled.

I also had to help and be involved in building an infrastructure that would elevate the music community. Kids wanted to learn music, and those who were talented wanted to be able to earn money. They needed help and guidance and they wanted to know the things I know. But the circumstances that brought my success in America didn’t exist in South Africa.

You mean with the music business?

Right. Now it’s growing slowly. I’m getting more involved in production and talent development and all of the things that pertain to trying to create a better infrastructure. Until that infrastructure is owned by a black business community, it will be hard to make a change.

Are the record companies still all owned by white people?

They were never owned by anyone else — and you don’t wake up one day and say, ‘We voted, give us your record company.’

You say the album you just released here came out first in South Africa, was that on a black owned label?   

It was on Sony South Africa, part of Sony International.

Are there any black record labels at this point?

I’m forming my own record company, not a black record company per se, but a company that will address where we are coming from and improve those conditions. It will not only be a record company, but also a television company and and a film company involved in distribution. We’re going into business. We’re calling it Chisa, Chisa Entertainment Corporation. When I lived in the states I had Chisa Records, that’s one I started.

What does Chisa mean?

Chisa means put fire. Light the fire.

So that is your plan for the future?

It’s not my plan, I’m doing it. I’m not dreaming about it, I’m in the process of doing it. We are lighting the fire.


We end with what may the most memorable set in the times Mr. Masekela visited Humboldt. It didn’t start the way it was supposed to. He was booked for Reggae on the River to play a set before Reggae faves, Third World. Hugh’s plane ran into fog in our socked in airport. I’m not sure what happened, but he was not on time for his set and the Reggae Ambassadors had to play earlier than planned. They were ripping it up as usual and without notice, we heard a familiar lick, the Third World keyboard player playing “Grazin’ in the Grass,” and Mr. Masekela took over, slowly his band with the reggae band. Amazing…

interview by Bob Doran…

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