What I've learnt: Hugh Masekela - Times LIVE
Mon May 29 22:41:38 SAST 2017

What I've learnt: Hugh Masekela

Marion Scher | 2011-10-30 01:13:54.0

The musician on escaping from the old South Africa, friends and recording hit songs without knowing it

Before playing at the opening concert of the 2010 Fifa World Cup in Orlando, I watched as people from all different ethnic groups poured out of the station together. Man, that felt good. The apartheid government split us into groups, but if we are going to reconcile, we must first get out of denial and learn one another's cultures, speak each other's language. Until then, we can't pretend we're a rainbow nation.

Music was a way of life for us in the 1950s. When I was a child in Witbank, there was a carnival somewhere every weekend. With no television, we played games in the streets, sang songs - protest songs, church hymns, jazz.

Encourage your kids with their dreams. Music consumed me.At five I was given piano lessons but it was when Father Trevor Huddleston at St Peter's Secondary School handed me my first trumpet that it really had me hooked.

One small gesture can change a life. Father Huddleston, who was then in exile, met my idol Louis Armstrong and told him about our band. Louis's response was: "Well, I got to send them one of my horns" and he did. What this did for the band was get us on the front page of every major newspaper and magazine in South Africa - a first for a black group. It was two months after Sharpeville and I'd been badgering Father Huddleston to find a way of getting me out of here. He got legendary musicians Yehudi Menuhin and Johnny Dankworth to back me, but I still needed a passport. It took another three-and-a-half years, but my cousin found a guy who could be bribed with a bottle of Limousin brandy. The next day I was gone, and spent the next 25 years fighting as hard as I could for South Africa's liberation.

You don't always know when you get something right. It was the summer of 1968. I'd had hit records a year before, but didn't give them a lot of thought. I recorded an album with producer Russ Regan - we were his first signing, with Elton John the second. We were one song short on the album and I said, "let's do that song we did in Zambia - Grazing in the Grass - and we cut it in six minutes. At a concert in Detroit when people stood up and made us play it three times, I suggested to Russ we make it into a single. His response: "What are you talking about - it's already number one in the world!"

Old friends are the best friends. In the 1960s I found myself recording alongside a brilliant young Paul Simon. We became great friends and when he eventually came to South Africa in the early 1980s I'd been living in Botswana for four-and-a-half years . I'd previously told him, when I heard Graceland for the first time, to call me if it became a hit, so he did. He said he needed musicians to tour with him, so I rounded up some greats such as Ray Phiri, Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and for the next three years we played to packed houses worldwide.

There's more to life than just my music now. With three books, including novels, under my belt I'm busier than ever. After coming out as an alcoholic and a drug addict, I started the Musicians' and Artists' Assistance Programme of South Africa and we're busy training counsellors.

Some things shouldn't be left to die. I want to reignite the old amphitheatre weekend entertainment where different groups around the townships can perform.

We should be able to choose our leaders. I love the Scandinavian model where you never read about the head of state in the newspapers. They go to work on the bus or even walk and the country functions well. I would like to see someone who's working for the country, because inauguration doesn't mean coronation.


If you have an opinion you would like to share on this article, please send us an e-mail to the Times LIVE iLIVE team. In the mean time, click here to view the Times LIVE iLIVE section.