I first met Hugh Masekela in June 2005. He had just finished an electrifying set at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn. We, who seemed like all of New York, were floating en masse toward our respective roadways, trains and taxis, his melodies still swirling in the backs of our ears. A smaller crowd was gathering around the VIP tent entrance, and I saw him—a man whose personality always outmeasured his stature. Greeting everyone as if they were old friends. Looking you square in the eye and disarming you with laughter so warm you thought you were old friends, too. No handshakes, only hugs.
My friend and I inched closer, hoping to say hello, when someone waved us to the front of the line. “Where are you from?” boomed Mr. Masekela. I told him Rwanda and Uganda. And he began to tell me about all the beautiful children he met during his recent visit to East Africa.
“What do you do?” he asked. I told him I’m a singer and asked if I could give him a demo of some of my music. Mr. Masekela promised to listen. Six months later I received an email from his office saying he wanted to meet me again on his next trip to New York.
So began the journey of knowing the late, great Hugh Masekela. He was my dearest mentor, a trusted advisor and a beloved friend. He was “Uncle Hugh.” The news of his death hit me like a train—in Zulu, a stimela, the title of one of his most famous songs.
“Stimela! Sihamba ngamalahle!” (Train! That runs on coal!)
A lump of something that feels like the coal he sang of sits firmly in my throat. The memory of him, his humor, his giant heart and genius screeches over the rails inside me.
“Sikhalel’ izihlobo zethu! Stimela!” (We weep for our relatives! Train!)
Eventually the honesty of his music and voice soothes. He is not gone; his legacy is still very much alive, pushing our pasts and futures forward like a long-haul steam train. But not the one that would take precious hidden things from our homeland for the enrichment of foreign people. No, Uncle Hugh is the train that leads us back to ourselves, unearthing our own tongues and ancestry, our own rhythms and magic, reminding us of our pains and our progress.
“Masibuyele le! eTalakubayi!” (Let’s go back this morning!)
Uncle Hugh taught me about global citizenship, personal agency and humility—all while beguiling me with stories about running the streets with Miles Davis and Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone, or sharing his passion for African heritage and tai chi. He was a proud and brilliant bon vivant who had the memory of an elephant and a heart like the ocean. He was the one who always checked on me when he passed through New York or Lagos. The one who sang my name in solfège syllables (“Sol-mi!”) each time he greeted me. The one who, in 2014, invited me to perform with him at Carnegie Hall to commemorate 20 years of South African democracy. The one who, every time I thanked him for his support, would threaten to send me a bill, and then laugh that extra-warm laugh again. The one who would never hesitate to tell me if he thought I needed to work on my art or my heart.
Yes, Uncle Hugh was and is that train, telling the truth with a ferocious roar and nothing more than love on the tracks. All aboard.
“Yelele! Yelele! Yelele! Yelele!” (Sleep!)
The Hugh Masekela Heritage Foundation exists to preserve and promote African heritage and to contribute to the restoration of African identity through the creation of cultural information facilities, the support and incubation of heritage arts and the dissemination of this information and cultural inheritance throughout the African Diaspora and the world. Go to www.hmhf.co.za to learn more about the Foundation.