FROM THE ARCHIVE | Hugh Masekela on escaping from the old South Africa

23 January 2018 - 10:51 By Marion Scher
Hugh Masekela during the annual MTN Bushfire Festival in May 2017 in Swaziland.
Hugh Masekela during the annual MTN Bushfire Festival in May 2017 in Swaziland.
Image: Gallo Images /Alet Pretorius

This article was first published in the Sunday Times on October 30 2011.

After achieving success internationally as a musician‚ Hugh Masekela became a published author and initiated a drug and alcohol rehab programme. In this story from our archives‚ he discussed 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 SA — 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 there. 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. 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 SA 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.

South African jazz musician Ramopolo Hugh Masekela has died. Masekela lost his battle with prostate cancer in Johannesburg, his family said on Tuesday,

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.

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