Hugh Masekela opens up on music, politics

Saturday August 13 2016

Legendary jazz musician Hugh Masekela. PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA

Legendary jazz musician Hugh Masekela. PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA 

By Kari Mutu

Legendary jazz musician Hugh Masekela, is back in Nairobi for the Safaricom Jazz Lounge, a concert of local and international jazz musicians. A singer-songwriter, Masekela is one of the finest players of the flugelhorn, cornet and trumpet in the world.

At 77 years of age Bra Hugh, as he is known to his fans, shows no signs of slowing down and maintains a busy schedule of highly energised performances around the world. His political activism has evolved into a campaign for the advancement of African culture and traditions.

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Where do you get your energy from?

I was bewitched by music. By the time I was five years old, my grandmother and my aunties would say, “oh shut up with your singing all morning.”

Then I ran with it, I learned music, I started playing the piano when I was five, playing the trumpet when I was 12 after I watched a movie about a trumpet player. I’ve been in music for 72 years, I’m just inside it like being in a stream floating towards the ocean and my boat is music witchcraft.

I exercise, swim, walk and practise Tai chi, yoga and Pilates. You have to exercise because if you don’t exercise, soon your body will tell you.

Tell us something about your childhood?

We were raised by our grandparents and there was hardly anything we didn’t learn about our heritage. And there was also a work ethic. I think it’s very important that we try to and put some kind of heritage back in our lives because we are the only society that is consumed by other cultures.

Give us a background to Grazin’ in the Grass, one of your greatest hits.

There is a cowbell and then the talking because with most of our old records in the 40s and 50s, every song was preceded by a talk. The introduction would have nothing to do with the song. It was a filler for the long play.

The recording guy came and said, “We need one more song, it’s not long enough.” The saxophone player and the band quickly said, ‘That song with the cowbell, let’s do that.’ And it was a hit four times. It was a surprise for us.

What would you say to young people who pursue music for money and the fame?

They’re doomed because music is not a human creation. You might get the fame but it is that wanting to be a star that eventually kills you. Once in a while you get somebody who dies on stage because they’re so eager.

I think this is not in music only. Children should take up whatever interests them. You just have to be honest with yourself. If at about 12 years old no one has noticed your talent, especially in music, means that you have no talent and will be forcing yourself to be a musician.

But we have to train people in all aspects of the arts. That’s what makes a country great, because then those people can express themselves.

You have described Kenya as one of the greatest places you have visited.

Kenya is one of the few countries in the world where everybody speaks the same language. You have a great pride of culture and the standard of education here is one of the highest in the world. I think in the past couple of years there have been a couple of outstanding musicians who have come from here. I think Eric Wainaina is one of them. There has been a lot of music learning in the past six to seven years.

Music was part of political consciousness in South Africa during the struggle for Independence. What is the role of musicians in the political sphere today?

There is nothing that happens in South Africa without music, whether it is a wedding or a baptism. Music is like our language. We have millions of songs. Music is a phantom in South Africa now, that’s what happened.

The thing that is important for arts like music to thrive is public safety. People should be able to walk around anytime to anywhere and feel protected. but you cannot just walk around in South Africa anymore, even during the day. There is no public security.

You have achieved great success internationally; what is holding back other African musicians?

African musicians, whether Ladyship Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba, Salif Keita, Angelique Kidjo or Youssou N’Dour, were all heritage Africans. They expressed the feelings of their people.

Africans who try and do RnB, hip-hop and all that cannot get very far — except the Nigerians, who put a lot of heritage into it. Whenever I’m asked what kind of music I play, well it’s a little forest, a little garden and some bush.

How do we combine with the past and the present in a way that is functioning for us?

The past is there because the majority of Africans, even though they live in the city, are rural people. They come and pack the city. But they all know traditional songs, they all bring their drums.

Another thing you need to know is who in your family knows the history of the clan. We have to know such things.

The people of Kenya have something to show but it’s invisible. We see the Maasai jumping but that’s about all we get. The music, the history, we don’t have that and we don’t tell each other. We have to.

Is there is room to create more opportunity for African musicians?

The only countries that for me offer support to the arts are obviously Nigeria and here in Kenya and DR Congo. In South Africa, we had more music when we were oppressed than we have now. I think that one of the greatest sins that happened there is the fact that music disappeared.

Why did music disappear in South Africa?

Not just in South Africa but in many African countries too, and it is because the governments feel they are more important than the arts, that arts are frivolous. But when they need you, they call you. I would like to address the heads of governments at the African Union where they all meet.

What would you say?

What the f*** is the matter with you people? That’s what I’d say. What have the arts done to you except promote you? Then I’d say the same thing that I’m saying to you, which is bring back the arts. If you look at most of the leaders in the world and especially in Africa, an inauguration in many cases is a coronation.

Do you detest politicians?

I don’t hate them but I think most politicians are just opportunists. They are there to rip the people off, dumb them down and have them vote for them. Especially in Africa, they are not there for the people. This is not a new thing, but I think it’s at its worst now.

Even Nelson Mandela?

Nelson Mandela didn’t free South Africa. South Africa was freed by the people of South Africa who were not in jail. The ANC made him the symbol of their party.

In every revolution, it is the people who are used as uniting symbols who are turned into deities by the media. Mandela didn’t want to be a deity. But he was pushed into it. During his presidency, he was hardly ever in South Africa. He was touring the world waving, that’s what you saw. And the world wanted that.