Thursday, October 21, 2010

Still Grazing: Masekela’s Half Century Jazz Affair

Hugh Masekela and the author in Accra, Ghana 2007

South African jazz trumpeter and composer Hugh Masekela weaves a tale of intense passion for music, women and drugs in his life story which spans many continents amidst the upheaval of the apartheid era.


One man stood out among the prominent African musicians that performed during the opening ceremony of the recently concluded World Cup in South Africa. At 71, Hugh Masekela, the doyen of African jazz, blew the trumpet with so much vigour compared with the energy of a sixteen year-old as the world’s biggest sporting event opened in Africa in early June. In his performance with Nigeria’s Femi Kuti who reprised his world famous hit “Bang, bang, bang”, Masekela continued a tradition of collaboration which had begun with the older Fela Kuti in Lagos in 1973 when he made a musical pilgrimage across West Africa. In Lagos he discovered the eclectic musical combination called the Afrobeat by its author Fela who helped him find his feet in West African highlife and dance rhythm which greatly impacted on his sound. He called

However, Masekela’s sojourn into music had begun earlier in his country back in the 1950s at the height of the racially debasing apartheid regime. In his book Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela, the trumpeter tells of his upbringing in the Alexandra Township of Johannesburg; his discovery of his musical talents at the St Peter’s School where he got his first trumpet as a gift from jazz great Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong; the explosion of the mbhaqanga township music which saw him tour South Africa as a teenager amidst the racial turmoil of the apartheid era; his eventual escape from the tightening racial segregation laws of his country to the United States via London to study music and the many hits and near misses of his career spanning more than fifty years.

Music for Masekela and his compatriots was a liberating experience from the day to day harshness of life in the townships that they were forced to live in away from the whites. “The government despised our. They couldn’t figure out how Africans could still find any pleasure under such harsh social conditions” Masekela writes. “They were particularly annoyed when Africans jammed with white, Indian, and coloured entertainers. Race mingling of any kind was resented by the apartheid government”. As much as the blacks were restricted from mixing with other races, they were also prevented from mixing with other Africans from outside the country, an act which according to Masekela is responsible for today’s xenophobia in South Africa.

In Still Grazing, Masekela and his co-author African-American professor D. Michael Cheers explore the themes of love, life, music, drug addiction, racial oppression, activism, and AIDS. Masekela does not hide his various dalliances with the women in his life beginning with the most famous of them all Miriam Makeba, his first wife who even though older than him took him through life, musically and emotionally. The book tells about their romance from when they met singing on the local circuit in Alexandra and began a whirlwind romance that will take them across oceans till when they married while in exile and their eventual divorce which Masekela put down to irreconcilable differences, something that deeply hurt Makeba for many years as he walked out on their marriage. His marriage to Chris, Cab Calloway’s daughter which ushered him into the black elite circles of America and his eventual divorce from her due to drug problems highlight the crazy times that 1960s America was.

In Masekela’s journey one gets to meet all the big time jazz greats and famous entertainment personalities who made the bebop era what it is. He was on a first name basis with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Coltrane, Don King, Herb Alpert, Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Bill Cosby, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix among so many others. In his lifetime, Masekela has dined and wined with many African leaders while also getting caught up in some of the most terrible political pogroms that happened on the continent in the years after independence. He was a guest of Sekou Toure in Guinea when Cape Verdean leader Amilcar Cabral was murdered in 1972; while he was granted honorary Liberian citizenship, his benefactor President William Tolbert was massacred alongside his cabinet members by Samuel Doe in 1980; he was in Lagos as Fela’s guest when Murtala Muhammed was assassinated and had to stay put until the state of emergency curfews were lifted several weeks later; and he escaped with his life in Botswana when the South African apartheid regime’s death squads bombed many exiled activists in that country in a bid to keep opposition figures quiet.

From his own eyes, we see how his addiction to sex, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol ruined many of his business and personal relationships and almost took his life but for a rehabilitation programme in London that made him clean after almost 40 years of abuse. Still Grazing chronicles his many hits from his greatest album Grazing in the Grass to the flops and misses that characterize every artiste’s career. In his own words one comes to a realization of the pains of living in exile for more than thirty years due to the evil perpetrated on his home by the Afrikaner government which in turn drove him to explore mind numbing substances to send away the pain of losing his mother in violent means. At the turn of every page, Masekela’s humanity cries out to the reader and while not begging to be accepted and understood, he remains thankful for the forces that have made him live a rewarding life that has impacted his country through his musical journey.

On returning to South Africa at the end of apartheid in 1991, Masekela discovered that not much has changed because the white establishment still controlled the civil service and the black African communities were now fighting themselves over political territories. Instead of giving up on his country, he decides to find other ways of helping out with the reforms process even though he is disillusioned by the reconciliation process which does not punish perpetrators of the evils against his people. With the HIV/AIDS pandemic that swept through the country came another attack on his peoples’ way of life. Losing his sister to the disease made the denial strategy of the government a sad process. Masekela went to press five years later stating that his sister had died of AIDS thereby shedding light on the pandemic and causing many more people to take up the fight against the disease.

These days, Masekela lives with his Ghanaian wife Elinam on their farm called Polinam, a combination of his mother’s name Polina and his wife’s, a hundred kilometres west of Johannesburg. He still makes music and encourages young people to take to the art. In many of his concerts he can still be heard playing a cover of Fela’s hit “Lady” to the admiration of audiences. While acknowledging the vanity of life he tells whoever cares to listen, “I am truly lucky to be around. Let the music play.”

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