10 Nov 2010
Half a century ago Hugh Masekela's prodigious musical aptitude sent
him on a journey that has since taken him around the world many times over.
Born in Witbank in north-eastern South Africa in 1939, the
instrumentalist, singer, composer and human rights activist mastered
the piano at an early age before falling in love with the trumpet.
Shortly afterwards, the entire world became his concert hall.
In 1959, as part of the orchestra for the touring musical King Kong,
Masekela was one of the first musicians to bring South African
culture to a Western audience. He left his homeland permanently
shortly afterwards, following the 1960 Sharpeville shootings and the
increasing brutality of the apartheid regime. First he went to London
to study at the Guildhall School of Music and later moved to America,
where he befriended Harry Belafonte and studied at New York's
Manhattan School of Music.
His music, a rich broth of pop, jazz, funk and township jive, has
been shaped both by the experiences of his South African youth and
the ensuing decades as an international exile. In the 60s Masekela
enjoyed huge US pop hits with Up, Up And Away and Grazin' In The
Grass, the latter making him the first African to have a number one
single. He appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival and played on The
Byrds (So You Want To Be A) Rock 'n' Roll Star. In the 1970s, after
making the groovy, ground-breaking Home Is Where The Music Is in
London, his focus returned to Africa. Exiled from his homeland, he
lived in Ghana, Guinea and Liberia, channelling the sounds of west
Africa into his own music.
Alongside the late Miriam Makeba, to whom he was married in the 60s,
he became the most globally significant South African musician of his
age. Throughout it all, he kept an unyielding eye on home affairs. In
1987 his single Bring Him Back Home became an anthem for the movement
to free Nelson Mandela; the same year he toured the world with Paul
Simon's politically charged Graceland ensemble. Finally, following
the end of apartheid in 1991, he returned to live in South Africa and
immediately embarked upon a celebratory four-month tour .
Masekela is no rose-tinted idealist. He has never shied away from
addressing the complexities of his country through his music, and
even post-apartheid he has refused to take the easy view. On Bring It
Back Home, from his 2009 album Phola, he vents his fury at the
country's present-day leaders: "They have lost their memory/They
embrace the enemy". And while acknowledging the benefits of holding
this year's World Cup in South Africa, he quickly adds, "But it's
gone. Is it a positive legacy? Not after 500 years of rape. It can't
cancel slavery, that's for sure. I don't think a month of football
can heal all the wounds. It showed the spirit and potential, but a
lot of political and industrial mettle will be needed for conditions
to change for Africans."
Masekela's career is now dedicated to driving cultural change in his
home continent through what he calls "the resurrection and revival of
traditional heritage performance, music and dance", saying: "The past
is terribly rich but humanity has been hoodwinked into looking at the
future. People don't know us for our cultural side, they only know
where the oil and minerals are. I feel I'm living in a time where
there is a possible window for an African renaissance. I'd like for
people to come to Africa and for the animals and the geography to be
secondary to the culture. No place in the world is more diverse."
He seems less inclined to discuss his own past. "I've been a musician
since I was a child," he says. "I was immersed and obsessed with it,
but I'm not very good at looking back." One highlight he's happy to
revisit is Simon's 1987 Graceland tour, which once again threw him
into combat mode. Recording in Johannesburg with local musicians,
Simon was accused by some of breaching the cultural boycott imposed
on apartheid-era South Africa. When Masekela and his group joined
Simon's touring band, one of apartheid's most tireless opponents
found himself being vilified by white liberals abroad and the ANC at
home. That must have been galling?
"No, because I disagreed with them," he says. "I encouraged Paul to
do the tour regardless of what these people thought because he was
setting a precedent. Graceland was not a lily-livered tour. We spoke
openly against apartheid in the interviews and the show itself, so I
didn't give a s*** who had a problem. Later, when Paul came to South
Africa in 1991 Mandela had a reception for him, and the people who
were accompanying him to the table were the same people who had led
the pickets against Graceland. It was very comical. I don't think any
artist brought more awareness to the situation in South Africa than
Paul. What he did was a major catalyst for change."
Masekela has always been a firebrand. He was busted for cannabis
possession in the 1960s and spent much of the '70s and '80s battling
alcoholism. Now 71, he seems to have reached a point of relative
serenity. "I do Tai Chi and that calms me down," he says. "I have a
great life. None of my children is a problem, I have great friends. I
have a very joyous point of view."
His work ethic and passion remained inspiringly undimmed. He has
recently recorded an album of traditional African wedding songs and
is working on Songs Of Migration, a project exploring the influence
of movement in and out of South Africa. "I'm obsessed with what I
think needs to be done," he says. "I've got maybe 15 years left, 20
if I'm very lucky, and in that time I'm very concerned about giving
back to my country by showing off what Africa has – because it's limitless."
Hugh Masekela plays the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on Sunday.