Hugh Masekela’s still pushing buttons at 76

Hugh Masekela’s autobiography 'Still Grazing' is back in print, and this trumpet legend was still calling bulls**t about weaves, land & language during this 2015 interview. Tymon Smith got the lowdown

22 November 2015 - 02:04 By Tymon Smith
Hugh Masekela.
Hugh Masekela.
Image: Moeletsi Mabe

Hugh Masekela’s acclaimed autobiography 'Still Grazing' is back in print, and this trumpet legend's still calling bulls**t about weaves, land & language. Tymon Smith got the lowdown

It was a chilly, sunny day in May when I sat down with Hugh Masekela at the Franschhoek Literary Festival. One of those days on which bees are buzzier than in summer. They were bothering the jazz legend, scrounging insistently for sugar on the restaurant table.

Rhodes had just fallen, and Masekela had been in the news after refusing to have his photo taken with a journalist wearing a weave at the conferral of his honorary doctorate at Rhodes University. And BB King had just died.

"I first met BB King in 1967 in Chicago when we opened for him. He was a beautiful, beautiful, gentle, gentleman," said Masekela in that intensely laid-back, jazz-inflected drawl of his. He brushed away a bee. "They're just looking to make sweet honey," he said with a twinkle in his eye.

That twinkle, along with his prodigious trumpet skills, has sustained the 76-year-old Masekela through a remarkable life. His recently re-issued biography Still Grazing teems with more encounters with legends of jazz, rock, pop and politics than the rest of us could ever dream of. It's no accident that the short-lived local edition of Rolling Stone chose Masekela as its first cover star. He's our own Keith Richards (minus the heroin) who had his fill of women, booze and cocaine everywhere from London to LA, Lagos to Monrovia.

Throughout the hedonistic decades, and the clean life that followed, he kept making distinctively warm, eclectic music - a sound that still gets hips shaking, toes tapping, eyes shining. At times it can make you cry.

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I kicked myself for not bringing my vinyl Hedzoleh Soundz album for him to sign. It's an Afro psych-rock fusion classic recorded in three days in 1973, with a Ghanaian band introduced to Masekela by Fela Kuti, the maddest, baddest man in Africa. On his 1976 album Colonial Man (listen to the track below), in songs like Vasco Da Gama and Cecil Rhodes, Masekela laid down a soundtrack for African anti-colonialism - one that chimes perfectly with the zeitgeist of the Rhodes Must Fall movement.

Although he's played everywhere from the legendary Monterey Festival in 1967 - where his friend Jimi Hendrix famously burnt his guitar - to sold-out crowds in Lesotho in the 1980s, and is currently touring more than he ever has in his career, this was Masekela's first appearance at a literary festival. "I'm actually a voracious reader and it's nice to be among people who are interested in writing, because South Africa is not top of the charts when it comes to reading."

He recalled the bibliomania of his father, Thomas Selema Masekela - on Saturday mornings, when he and his sister Barbara were kids, "he would make us give him a report of what we'd read and understood".

"When I was nine he'd throw Aldous Huxley at me and I would say, 'Dad, this is too deep.' He'd say, 'There's a thesaurus, there's a dictionary.'"

These days, Masekela has plenty of time to read while travelling to gigs in cars and on planes. He's also working on a sequel to Still Grazing, which he hopes will hit the shelves by Christmas next year.

The first book was published in 2004 in the US, but had very limited distribution in South Africa, hence the reissue last month. It ends his story in 2002, after he'd kicked his spectacular drug and booze habits.

"Fourteen years later I've accumulated a lot of brain wealth and different observations, so I'm writing the sequel."

 

When I asked him about the great weave debate, which has been popping up all over the media this year, Masekela shrugged.

"They should wear their weaves but they shouldn't come around me with them. It's a macabre thing - a person wearing a dead person's hair is very macabre. I also came up with a new word - 'indigenophobia' - being afraid of your own heritage."

Masekela's preoccupation with heritage is informed by his intense longing for home during 30 years of exile - and by his experiences of the continent in its post-liberation period. He has set up a heritage foundation. "I'm looking to come up with academies to ... teach arts and crafts and history and praise poetry.

"My biggest worry is that African society is the only society that imitates other cultures. And the new kids, especially in urban primary schools, don't speak their mother tongues any more. The paradox is that the minister of basic education has announced they must be taught Mandarin because China is our biggest trading partner."

As his biography shows, Masekela has never been afraid to call bullshit, and that hasn't changed. One of the reasons his family let him travel to London on a music scholarship was that they feared his rebellious spirit would inevitably lead to trouble with the apartheid regime if he remained in South Africa.

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As for the statue frenzy, he declined to criticise the Rhodes Must Fall movement. "But there should be a consistency if you're going to go against injustice. Africans in this country don't own any land, all the businesses are white-owned and nobody says anything about that." Since we spoke, Julius Malema has raised these issues.

As Masekela got ready to leave for his next engagement, he sighed and gazed out at the chichi bustle of the Winelands town.

"People are tired. The thing that united us was our revulsion against apartheid, and the whole world finally became repulsed - but when it went away they made it the only problem.

"There's never been a time in human history when people have said: 'We're sorry we raped your women, we raped your country, we raped your land, we raped your minerals and made billions and billions and trillions of pounds off your slave backs - so here's 500-trillion bucks to show how sorry we are.'

"It's never happened and I don't think it will ever happen."

He's probably right. But there might be a song in there. You never know what "Pu-Pu-Ru-Pu-Pu" - as his grandmother used to call him in mimicry of the sounds he made on his horn - will do next.

You do know, though, that long after the hashtags have gone and the weave-wearers have finished wailing, Masekela's music and legacy will still be standing. As sure as bees make sweet honey.

 

'Still Grazing' is published by Jacana (R245).

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