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Hugh Masekela On the Move

At 73, the South African icon is unstoppable

Hugh Masekela
Hugh Masekela

The powers that be, in music and in politics, have never been able to pin Hugh Masekela down because he’s always a step ahead. Apartheid drove him into exile but by no means muzzled him. He records in multiple genres and tongues, performs in venues from huge to intimate to downright claustrophobic, and voices opinions as proudly as he entertains. A master of trumpet, fluegelhorn and cornet, Masekela is a thrilling showman and a walking call to arms.

“I live in the world,” the 73-year-old says in his raspy tenor. “In my life, in my perspective of what life should be, we limit ourselves through conventions.” Excellence is all that counts. “For me, music is just music.”

Earlier this year he toured behind Jabulani, a disc he released in South Africa in 2010 and in the U.S. in January. A celebration of the wedding songs that informed Masekela’s childhood in Witbank, South Africa, it’s an homage to the “millions of children [who] came from millions of couples whose weddings were marinated and baked in these songs,” says Masekela. “To state that the songs are one of the most significant gateways to the magnificence of our heritage would be an unforgivable heresy, a gross understatement and an extreme case of dementia.”

While Masekela’s vocals (including some in English) and flugelhorn shape all of Jabulani‘s 11 tracks, they’re not always the focus. The album is part of a larger Masekela reclamation project: raising the profile of South Africa’s heritage and its current, vibrant culture. He plans to spend much of his remaining time memorializing and celebrating his homeland’s musical culture, as “a major player in the game of heritage restoration and cultural revival visibility.” He is also eager to expand Africa’s image beyond pictures of wildlife and sunsets in the bush. “The amazing diversity of the African diaspora cultural heritage’s excellence is so unfathomable that the surface has hardly been tickled,” he explains.

Masekela’s career goes back more than 50 years. He got his first trumpet from anti-apartheid Archbishop Trevor Huddleston when he was 14, and has recorded music both deeply urban and very country, spanning township jive, dance-band tunes, protest songs, even African versions of the blues. After the Sharpville Massacre of 1960, when apartheid forces killed 69 Africans protesting the nation’s pass laws, he managed to get out of South Africa; eventually, with the help of Harry Belafonte and Masekela’s wife-to-be, Miriam Makeba, he began to make records, building an audience that extended beyond jazz. His trumpet bursts through the Byrds’ 1967 hit “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” and that spring he performed at the game-changing Monterey Pop Festival. The following year, his “Grazing in the Grass” became a worldwide hit, even ascending to No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart in the U.S. He has worked with everyone from Herb Alpert to Abdullah Ibrahim to Fela to Makeba to Letta Mbulu, and he toured behind Paul Simon’s controversial album, Graceland. From 1995 to 1997, he owned a jazz club in Johannesburg.

He remains active, and it’s obvious that his natural state is restlessness. Masekela likes it that way. On March 31, he led a big, vocally sumptuous band at Kippies, a massive room at Cape Town’s International Convention Centre, drawing 2,500. The Kippies date was a highlight of the Cape Town Jazz Festival. A month later, he joined Herbie Hancock, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Tony Bennett, Sheila E., Lang Lang, Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding (among others) for the UNESCO-sponsored International Jazz Day concert in New York City. Around that same time, the Tribeca Film Festival premiered Alekesam (spell it backwards), a movie about his relationship with his son Sal, a journalist and action-sports figure who grew up in the States. This past spring also saw the release of Friends, a four-CD set of American standards-available only in South Africa-recorded with keyboardist Larry Willis, a longtime associate. And he is already mixing another record to follow up Jabulani.

“Being on the move is relaxation to me,” he says. “I’ve been on the move ever since my infancy, and it plays the most central part of my life. If you don’t move, you remain glued to one place. That is a boring way of life when there is so much to see, hear and learn.”

Originally Published