Hugh Masekela has seen a bit of it all.
Growing up in South Africa, the trumpet player used music as an act of defiance against apartheid. He went into exile in New York City in the 1960s, recorded a number one hit (“Grazing in the Grass”) and watched Jim Crow and segregation crumble in America. He married the South African singing legend Miriam Makeba and returned to South Africa to play with Paul Simon on the “Graceland” tour. He watched apartheid crumble, writing music for Nelson Mandela. In between, he toured the world many times while making music that can be searing, romantic, political and joyful all at once.
To celebrate his 70th birthday in April, Masekela released Phola, an album with a deep current of gentleness running through it. But, the man has lost none of his edge. He still understands the difference between making protest music because you want to and making it because you have to. (Actually, he prefers the term “songs of concern” to “protest music.”) He still understands that not everyone is free. Above all, he still understands the power of music to change things.
Glide recently caught up with Masekela to discuss a life in music and politics.
Happy belated birthday.
I wanted to talk first about the new album. There’s kind of a gentleness to it.
It was the producer who said I shouldn’t scream and I shouldn’t blow the hell out of the trumpet – just relax and let the feeling go. But the intensity is still there.
Looking back through your career, you’ve got songs like “Mace and Grenades,” which is a very political and intense song, whereas the new stuff is more easygoing. It’s interesting to encompass so many emotions.
I think I have learned a lot. I’m more relaxed, I know a little more than I did before and I understand a little more. You know, you’re always trying to decide between doing feel-good songs about love this and that and beautiful this and that – I’ve always been a person who wrote also a lot of songs of concern. I think as the years have gone by and technology has taken us over, since 1968, we’ve lost our edge as far as our sense of outrage is concerned. I grew up at this place and time when outrage against any kind of injustice was very intense, but you know, all around the world it has sort of been plucked away. People’s attention goes to other things. I think that is healthy from time to time to remind people that there is injustice. It is not good to be sitting back and saying, “I’m OK,” you know? There’s so much turmoil in the world, but there’s so much turmoil in Africa that we have to put out some kind of appeal, especially to leaders, to just think about the people just a little more. But I also have love songs and a folk song and a song asking for advice and instrumentals too, and I play the trumpet a lot on this album.
Do you feel like, at this point in your career, you are a better player than you used to be?
I am practicing more. On my next album, which we are already working on, I will be exhibiting more of the enjoyment of playing.
About a year ago, I interviewed Albert Mazibuko from Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and I got his impressions of growing up under apartheid in South Africa and what it was like to be a musician under that system. I’m interested to get your take on it.
We were surrounded by music, man. We were surrounded by musical activity like you never could have thought of, because, you see, colonialism and oppression, especially neocolonial oppression like apartheid was, there is always an environment of safety and security because police are all over pushing this other shit, you know what I mean? But it built a great environment for recreation and entertainment and also training grounds for musicians. Musicians need to play all the time. Singers need to sing all the time. Actors need to act all the time. And people need to come and enjoy and see it.
We were surrounded by everything, man – big bands, marching bands, traditional cultural drumming and dancing and church music and singing competitions. Wherever there was an open space on weekends were like carnivals. You had groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo – you never saw the groups, man, but you heard them in the distance. Fridays and Saturdays were like carnivals, and everybody had a Gramophone. So there was music and there was culture. They were things that apartheid wanted to get rid of, like, “How can we oppress these fuckers so hard and they’re having such a good time?” That happened in America too because with Jim Crow and slavery and everything – because there is a lot of security, you can really do that stuff.
Do you think that music, or your music in particular, had a role in ending apartheid?
By 1985, there wasn’t a person who recorded anywhere in the world in any language who didn’t have on their CD, “Down with apartheid, stop apartheid, down with racism in South Africa, free Nelson Mandela,” you know what I mean? Every artist was singing songs against apartheid, and I think we are the only country that had music as an international catalyst to help bring down an unjust government. I don’t think that has happened for any other country in history.
You talked about how the situation in America was similar. You went into exile in America in the 1960s, right?
I came here in 1960.
What was your experience like? There was still segregation here.
Segregated didn’t mean anything to me because I came from it and I wasn’t ignorant. We grew up learning everything about the United States. When I came to New York, I knew what the taxi fare was from the Apollo Theatre to Birdland through Central Park and how to get out and get in. We were obsessed with the excellence of African-American artistry, but also in geography and history, we studied the politics of America. We knew everything about Marcus Garvey and Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. We knew as much about England and Germany and China and Japan. There’s no country I’ve ever gone to on tour whose history I didn’t know. I think with the States, we also studied the social life and we were bombarded by records and movies, so it was an easy place to get to know.
Did your time in America change you as a musician? Did it bring any other influences in?
I came here already influenced. I was a walking encyclopedia of American music – not just jazz. I came here for the education I could get. I wanted access to the same education as the musical practitioners who were inspiring from the States. I was lucky, I got into the Manhattan School of Music where I had classical training. I came here during the golden age of jazz, the golden age of R&B, the golden age of Latino, the emergence of rock ‘n roll.
My favorite album of yours is Hugh Masekela and the Union of South Africa, because that one to me combines all of those elements – it’s got jazz, R&B, African elements, Latin influences.
These are new terms. You never heard Louis Armstrong saying he played jazz, or Miles or Dizzy. They played music. It was the journalists and the critics who came up with all these names, and later on salesmen and marketing people. I got into music when I was one or two years old, man. At that age, it’s music. It either moves or it doesn’t. And I’ve remained the same because I’ve never had to work in an office and categorize things. I don’t understand categorization. I think that is for sales and marketing.
One thing I always wonder about musicians who come up under governments that are so oppressive is if they think that experience affected the kind of music they made. Do you feel like if the government wasn’t that way, or if you grew up in a different place, you wouldn’t have been able to make the same kind of music?
I don’t think what I sang about was necessarily about South Africa. It’s about injustice. We grew up objecting to colonialism and apartheid. As kids, we grew up in rallies and in strikes and boycotts. But we were also inspired by the Malcom X’s and Martin Luther Kings and the French Revolutionaries – whenever people stood up against injustice. We were in the same position.
Is there still a place for protest music now?
I don’t call it protest music. I call it songs of resistance and songs of concern. There will always be songs of concern.