Hugh Masekela

A few words on Hugh Masekela


Upon hearing of Hugh’s death last week, it reminded me of my own musical journeys I have taken in Africa that have connected me with his music and African music in general, in particular South African music.

I first heard of Hugh Masekela in a song by Eric Burdon & The Animals called Monterey, it was about their time at the Monterey Pop Festival back in the 1967—Eric Burdon sings about “Hugh Masekela’s music was black as night”, with a little reverie from someone sounding like Hugh’s horn in the background.

The next time I heard Masekela’s music was in the early 1980s at my younger brother’s place listening to Grazing in the Grass. My brother and his wife had just returned to Canada after two years in Nigeria with CUSO. This was also the time when I was getting exposed to African music—my brother introduced me to another ‘new’ South African group called Jaluka (with Johnny Clegg) and their 1982 LP The Scatterlings of Africa, Masekela’s aforementioned LP, and a lot of music from Nigeria: Synchro Sound by King Sunny Ade and his African Beats and Ebenezer Obey to name a few. Naturally, I bootlegged these recordings with my mighty Sony Walkman Pro as I did everywhere I went.

During frequent trips to Africa during the 1980s, I soon amassed a growing collection of African music: Fela Kuti (The Black President), Edikanfo, Cheb Khaled, and Alpha Blondy—which every Kenyan taxi and matatus had blaring in 1984/86, and subsequently, Kass Kass in 1988. From my one trip starting in South Africa and Zimbabwe, I became acquainted with Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited.

In 1986, travelling overland from Nairobi south to RSA in the hopes of meeting up with two Canuck friends in Swaziland, I was the only “westerner” on a “Non-European” bus from Joburg to Swaziland. Naturally, the bus (more like a cattle car) was full of Swazis returning home and the music was a dog’s breakfast with your usual assortment of “Western music”—Michael Jackson and an assortment of C & W stars—Don Williams, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rodgers.

What particularly caught my attention and glad to get rid of “hurtin’ music” was when they switched to South African music? They played some Zulu gospel synth music which seemed to enliven everyone aboard with the Seye Jerusalema track. I did not realize it at the time, but another track with a crying baby was a rallying song for those against apartheid and sung at many funerals in South Africa—Senzeni Na. I had no idea of who the musicians were, so I asked another passenger to write the names down which turned out to be some odd looking names-Sishovingolovane and Nkata Mgreeka. The only thing I recognized was Whispers in the Deep. The name of the group was Stimela with Ray Phiri. You should have seen the weird looks the ‘white’ stores clerk gave me when I asked for Stimela’s Look, Listen and Decide, the Malopoets, the Holy Spirts Choir Okholwa Kujesu and Amampando cassettes in the Joburg music store in Hillbrow.

Now maybe you are wondering what the Stimela connection is to Hugh Masekela: two fold. One of Masekela’s best songs was called Stimela and it means the ‘coal trains’ that ferried African workers to and from the coal mines in southern Africa. Ray Phiri was the guitarist who played in his own band called Stimela, and he also was the skinny, lead guitarist with the hat on in the Graceland concert playing alongside Paul Simon, Hugh and Miriam Makeba in Harare, Zimbabwe. Simon and Phiri had a falling out of sorts because Ray claimed that Simon did not give him royalties from songs that he had written on the Graceland LP.

I had become interested in Masekela and Makeba when Paul Simon announced the huge Graceland concert at Rufaro Stadium in Harare in 1986. Hugh was still an exile at the time, but welcomed the chance to play with fellow South African musicians and his ex-wife Makeba. I was in Harare when the concert was announced and had planned to go to it as it was only $6 US. Unfortunately, when I went on a side trip to Great Zimbabwe, someone broke into my storage locker at the Harare Youth Hostel and nicked my remaining US dollars —mind you the thief didn’t take my CDN$ AMEX traveller’s cheques, so I missed that concert.

A couple of years later, after returning from our overland trip from Nairobi— Zimbabwe—Nairobi, my friend Janine and I, along with my brother and wife, took in a concert at Massey Hall in Toronto where Hugh’s band played alongside Miriam Makeba’s group—it was a tour de force, raucous at times, and very much an anti-apartheid concert. I bootlegged that recording and still have the cassette somewhere in my blessed storage in Kelowna. I was shocked when I heard Hugh play Lady, a song written by Fela Kuti, but on this night, it was dedicated by his friend Hugh. I found out later that Hugh and Fela had played together some years earlier in Nigeria. Janine and I were lucky to see the same concert, albeit with a few new band members, when they came to Calgary later that summer.

Hugh had been in political exile most of his life, but managed to play his music and learn from other equally talented musicians along the way. His voice was unmistakable, and for a guy who learned to play from scratch, his sound on the flugelhorn was unmatched.

Another giant of South African music is Johnny Clegg who has been recently diagnosed with cancer and is planning his farewell tour. Funny, even though apartheid was a huge part of many South Africans musicians and artists lives, it never got in the way of their music or craft—both inspirational and political at times.

Alas, Brenda Fassie, Fela Kuti, Ray Phiri, Miriam Makeba have all passed away a few years back, and now Hugh Masekela has left the music world. His spirit and playing will be missed—a giant in his own time. There’s going to be some great music in heaven when these guys and gals get together. Aluta continua!

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