Hugh Masekela is dead: An East African farewell for a great man

Thursday January 25 2018

Hugh Masekela

South African Musician Hugh Masekela playing trumpet during a cultural event to celebrate 'South Africa's 10 years of Freedom', in 2004 in New Delhi. South African jazz legend Masekela died on January 23, 2018 aged 78. PHOTO | PRAKASH SINGH | AFP 

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The legendary jazz trumpeter, composer, singer and anti-apartheid activist Hugh Ramopolo Masekela died on Tuesday from prostate cancer.

One of Masekela’s last public performances was at the Safaricom Jazz Festival, held at Uhuru Gardens, Nairobi, in August 2016.

There were no hints of a man battling cancer at that concert. He got down, blew the hell out of the night and left us delirious with joy.

In September last year, Masekela cancelled his appearance at Johannesburg Joy of Jazz Festival and the shows on his October schedule to “deal with serious health issues”. He was not to return to the stage.

There are many Africans, like myself, who have Masekela to blame — and thank — for their addiction to jazz.

When we were growing up, unlike with own children today, there, of course, weren’t 1,000 musicians to choose from.  If you were raised in what went for a middle-class household then, for African music in East Africa is, was what the uninitiated called “Congolese” — Tabu Ley (Rochereau), Franco Luambo Makiadi, Franklin Boukaka and stuff like that.

And then there was a distinct jazz space, dominated by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. There were the haunting sounds of Nina Simone, the painful “Negro Spirituals”, and gospel, typified at its most sublime by Mahalia Jackson.

Listening to music then, especially given that it was your parents playing it at appointed hours, was serious homework. We also used to learn how to “dance properly”, by the way.

And then there was, of course, Hugh Masekela.

Whether African or African-American, the music of that time was born of political struggle: Apartheid in South Africa, racism in the United States or post-independence angst in the rest of Africa.

The difference in these streams was that African jazz, even when dripping with revolutionary emotion, was always more cheerful, and that played well with a child’s ear.

Compare two great and best-selling jazz albums of the 1958-1968 decade: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and Masekela’s The Promise of a Future, whose influential single, Grazing in the Grass, went on to sell over four million copies at that time!

Kind of Blue makes you sit down and brood. Grazing in the Grass, despite coming out at the height of apartheid, nudges you to get up and dance.

There are people who see this duality as resilience, the thing that has allowed Africa to survive the most difficult times. There is mourning at a funeral but, as the night closes in, there is song and dance.

Whether you are reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (first published in 1958) or his Anthills of the Savannah, both tragic tales of nation and continent, you are as likely to be driven to despair as to laugh. Masekela mastered these ranges of emotions like few other musicians.

When Masekela performed at Uhuru Gardens, the young audience sang along. It’s impossible to imagine his contemporary, Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), who sticks to a purist tradition, evoking such emotion.

This trend allowed Masekela to adapt to the “voice of today”.

Not too long ago, our daughter was in a restaurant in Durban. In walked Masekela.

There was excitement, and her party asked him to take a photograph. He refused to take a photo with everyone else except her, for a very Masekela reason — she was the only one who wasn’t wearing a weave. He was into the politics of black hair!

But there was something else. How come such young people would want a photograph with Masekela?

I grew up listening to Masekela as my parents’ music. Then it became mine. And now, it had become part of the music of our children. His art was the sound of three generations.

In 1985, Masekela released Waiting for the Rain. One of the gems on it is the groovy nursery-school-style Zulu Wedding. It’s actually a song about a Zulu wedding.

And then there is Stimela (Coal train). First recorded in 1974, it is an otherwise grim tale of migrant mine workers in apartheid South Africa. However, it is a crowd favourite that gets everyone on their feet or singing alone.

And that was the source of Masekela’s genius. His ability to make the ordinary sound extraordinary. And a knack for breaking down the extraordinary into something ordinary and popular. And he did that for all of 60 years of his extraordinary musical life. We couldn’t have asked for more.

CharlesOnyango-Obbo is publisher of and explainer site Twitter: @cobbo3