TRIBUTE: Hugh Masekela (1939-2018) by Gwen Ansell

Hugh Masekela, Brecon Jazz Festival 2010
Photo credit and © William Ellis

Hugh Masekela: 1939-2018 – woke griot of African jazz. A tribute by Gwen Ansell

He led an astonishing life. Even after what seems like every media outlet in the world spending the past week narrating the career of horn player Hugh Ramapolo Masekela (who died on 23 January, aged 78, following a recurrence of prostate cancer) it still astounds us. Growing up in Johannesburg’s oldest township, Alexandra (nicknamed the ‘Dark City’ for the unlit gloom and gangsterism of its streets); receiving a trumpet from Louis Armstrong via Father Trevor Huddleston; playing in the King Kong pit band; marrying Miriam Makeba; scoring, as a barely known migrant, a US Billboard Number One with Grazing In The Grass – 50 years old this year; collaborating with Fela Kuti; calling out America on apartheid and its own stereotypes of Africa – each of these, alone (and there is more) is worth a book.

What, inevitably, has been lost in this intense focus on a most remarkable individual and his music is the context that fed his creativity. It takes a village to raise a child and that’s something Masekela himself never lost sight of: again and again in his 2004 autobiography Still Grazing  he invokes the African continent as his source of spiritual nourishment.

He wasn’t, as some commentators have said, “the father of South African jazz.” Those fathers had been working since before the 1930s and took him under their wings to learn: trumpeters like Elijah Nkwanyane and Banzi Bangani of the Merrymakers band in Springs: the first outfit with which Masekela – still a schoolboy – moonlighted. Masekela’s achievement was to take that venerable music and constantly update it over six decades, so it spoke to every subsequent generation of fans. Shortly before his final hospitalisation, he was planning collaborations with South African hip-hop artists.

Like Miles Davis before him, it wasn’t technique that made his music great. He was always a fine trumpeter, and in his mature years refined his skill to even higher levels. He was equally a powerful, evocative vocalist, something critics have discussed less. His vocalese drew from a very African musical paradigm: that there is, in fact, no fixed boundary between the music of the person and of the instrument. He played arpeggios on his vocal cords and with his distinctive on-stage moves too… “Whoo, whoo” goes the coal train (Stimela), flounce and pout goes Fela’s Lady… But what he said with that technique mattered more, as he defied genre boundaries to bring hope to South Africans at home, and harsh truths about life under apartheid to the world, and especially America.

That, too, had context. Masekela was one of a veritable army of South African musicians who volunteered to spread the word: his ex-wife Miriam Makeba; Jonas Gwangwa touring with the Amandla Cultural Ensemble; Dudu Pukwana and Louis Moholo Funk-ing Dem to Erico on the European avant-garde scene; Lucky Ranku, Pinise Saul, many more. In Botswana in the early 1980s, Masekela’s band Kalahari worked alongside the music unit of the revolutionary Medu Art Ensemble, which was destroyed by a murderous South African Defence Force raid on 14 June 1985. Masekela’s creative interweaving of Africa and America spoke particularly to those “coming into awareness of the real social verities and ready to go beyond Motown, Stax and bop [and] along comes a horn… just filled with the mellow African sun. Masekela… sounded on apartheid ‘here’ and ‘there’ and we said fuck them jazz nostalgiacs,” as Pablo Guzman put it in the Village Voice.

Because Africa always remained the centre of the trumpeter’s musical universe, he never relinquished the role of woke griot, even at the end. He lambasted South Africa’s post-liberation treatment of migrants from the rest of the continent: descendants of the migrants whose journeys to build apartheid’s gold and diamond economy he had memorialised on Stimela. He was equally scathing about an establishment that neglected to nurture artists while they lived, but shed copious public tears when they died. When some South African newspapers headlined Masekela’s death ‘the day the music died’, he probably wouldn’t have appreciated the epitaph.

Relentlessly hardworking and prolific, despite battles with addiction that might have incapacitated a smaller spirit, he left more than 50 albums (including compilations and collaborations) that still tell his stories. More, his legacy lives in the work of multiple younger South African trumpeters. They do not sound like him: he had a unique voice. But they all inhaled his music as they grew up. It was everywhere: on radio; blasting from the speakers on township stoeps; at concerts; dominating family record collections. We can honour his memory by appreciating their music while they still live. Here are a few to start with: Feya Faku; Prince Lengoasa; Lwanda Gogwana; Mandla Mlangeni; Sakhile Simani – all, in richly diverse ways, his heirs.

May his great spirit rest in peace: hamba kahle

Gwen Ansell is one of South Africa's leading jazz scholars, journalists, and educators,, and the author of Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music, and Politics in South Africa (2004)

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