Close encounters with a jazz legend

23:01, Feb 12 2013
Beloved country: Hugh Masekela back in South Africa. ‘‘I didn’t think I’d get a second chance to reimmerse myself in my cultural world.’


I met him 30 years ago, in a bar in London’s Camden Town: Hugh Masekela, the greatest jazz trumpeter South Africa has yet produced.

A man in exile from a troubled homeland, he'd just got off stage after playing a blinder of a live show, and this was just as well, because I'd risked my life getting there, riding pillion on the motorbike of a dodgy mate who claimed to be stone-cold sober but revealed himself to be otherwise once we started shooting down pedestrian laneways and weaving in and out of heavy traffic.


I shook Masekela's big warm paw at the bar and told him I'd loved the show. I also had a sheepish admission to make. Years earlier, I'd bought a bootleg cassette of one of his live shows, featuring a song called Stimela, about the coal trains that chugged through Namibia, Malawi, Angola, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe, collecting men who had no option but leave their families to work 16-hour days in the gold and mineral mines surrounding Johannesburg. At night, these men lay exhausted in filthy, flea-ridden barracks, pining for their distant loved ones and cursing the coal train that brought them to South Africa.

It was a song with the power to crush your heart. I loved it so much, I became a bootlegger myself, sending off copies to friends around New Zealand and overseas. Now the song's maker was sitting in front of me, a little the worse for booze. I told him I probably owed him a few quid for all those lost sales. He let loose a deep, booming laugh and said "Don't worry, my friend. The white man has been stealing our music for a very long time."

Sitting at home in Johannesburg three decades later, now 73, Masekela doesn't remember the encounter, but he's not surprised I felt compelled to bootleg that song. "Stimela is a song many people love all over the world," he says in a deep, breathy rasp. "And the funny thing is, I don't feel like I composed that one. It just came to me."


The song was about exile, a subject he understands very well. Soon after the horrific Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, Masekela escaped South Africa, aged 21, and was himself an exile for three decades. In 1991, following the release of Nelson Mandela and the legalisation of the ANC, Masekela returned home.

"The Apartheid years were terrible times, full of torture and killings and so on, but my people stood up against it, and things changed with time. I came back to Johannesburg 22 years ago, and returning home was the best thing that ever happened to me. I didn't think I'd get a second chance to reimmerse myself in my cultural world."

Masekela was given his first trumpet by a chaplain at age 14, developing rapidly into a spectacular soloist and a fearless songwriter. He wrote songs of hope and defiance, examining Apartheid, slavery, government corruption. His band the Jazz Epistles cut the first African jazz album in the late 50s, and friend Yehudi Menuhin helped him escape the country soon after.

After a spell in London, Masekela was admitted to the Manhattan School of Music in New York, where mentors Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong encouraged him to develop his own style, drawing from his African roots.

"These people said to me, ‘Hey, you're a great jazz musician, and you can play bebop like hell, but there's thousands of us, and there's only one of you. We are the children of New Orleans, but you are the child of Africa. You stand apart from everybody because of that, so play from your roots and show us what you got!"'

Masekela did just that. His first two albums, Trumpet Africaine (1963) and The Americanization of Ooga Booga (1966) were powerful statements of the resilience and adaptability of African musical forms, and caught the ears of a diverse array of other musicians around the world.

He has since played trumpet with his former wife Miriam Makeba and Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, but also with The Byrds, Marvin Gaye, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and U2. In 1967, he headlined the Monterey Pop Festival alongside Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, The Who and Jimi Hendrix, and his instrumental single Grazin' in the Grass went to No 1 on the American charts the following year.

Since then, Masekela has released more than 40 albums, blending traditional South African "mbaqanga" or "township jive" rhythms with funk, jazz, soul and blues, highlighting the feedback loop that exists between the music of his homeland and a host of more recent American musical styles with roots in the African diaspora.

"Yes, but what I play is not my music, really; I found it here in Africa when I was born. As the years went on, I realised almost all truly special artists, from The Beatles to Louis Armstrong, are musicians whose music refers strongly back to the local culture they came from. Go further back, and even Bach and Beethoven drew from the folk music of their time. If you try and imitate other cultures, you're just a copycat, but if you express your own culture in your own unique way, you are bringing something to the table that only you can bring. Really, the only thing we have that nobody can take away from us is our heritage."

Culture, heritage, cross-cultural communication: these are the driving forces behind the Womad Festival, where Masekela performs this year after a earlier showcase gig at Auckland Arts Festival. I'll be there, lazing on the grass centre-stage, keen to see if Masekela's music will hit me as hard as it did when I was marinated in adrenaline after that life-threatening motorbike ride across London 30 years ago.

I suspect it will, and there are also hundreds of other performers to enjoy over the festival's three-day run. But let's agree not to call it "world music", OK?

A few years ago, I talked to Womad co-founder Thomas Brooman, who was at pains to point out that Womad was far more than just an exotic summer soundtrack for jaded Western ears. He said the event was at heart a celebration of peace, tolerance and diversity, driven by the notion that all the people of the world are defined less by their differences than by their common humanity, and the collective impulse to share important cultural stories via music.

It's a credo Masekela wholeheartedly supports. To him, there are as many styles of music as there are musicians; he's never understood the tendency in English-speaking nations to lump an astonishing variety of non-Western sounds together under the dreary term "world music".

"You know, I was recently nominated for a world-music Grammy but, to me, that term is just marketing. All I can say is, my life takes place inside a maelstrom of music. When I was a child, I was possessed by music the same way the girl in The Exorcist was possessed by the devil, but I don't need exorcising! Music is a thing that doesn't need translation, and events like Womad make that very clear. If you hear a beautiful piece of music from Russia or Indonesia or Korea or Alabama, when it hits that spiritual human note, it reverberates inside the listener, no matter where they are from.

"People struggle to define what music's about but, for me, it's just an essential part of being alive. It's like air, or water. It's everywhere around us, and if it wasn't there, we would surely die."

Ramapolo "Hugh" Masekela plays Auckland Arts Festival on March 14 (, and is one of more than 200 performers from 21 countries headlining Womad 2013 in New Plymouth, March 15-17.

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