Hugh Masekela was the featured artist at The Epcor Centre on Tuesday, April 23 in the fifth and last of the five BD&P World Music Series presentations from their 2012-2013 season.
Now 74 years old, Masekela is a South African trumpeter and world music and jazz innovator who is well known for his contribution to Paul Simon’s classic album Graceland. Two years ago he was awarded Artist of the Year at WOMEX (World Music Expo) 2011 and graced a cover of Rolling Stone magazine. He is also the subject of a new Jason Bergh film, Alekesam, that explores the story “of a father exiled from his country, a son exiled from his father, and their mutual attempt to connect to the world, and each other through music.”
Apart from his lengthy musical career Masekela has been a human rights advocate both in Africa and around the world and his hit song, “Bring Him Back Home”, became the anthem for the Free Nelson Mandela movement in the 1980s.
Biographical information mauy be obtained at Hugh Masekela’s website: http://www.hughmasekela.co.za/ and those interested can also track down his autobiography Still Grazing.
Before the concert I had the opportunity to take in a facilitated lunchtime discussion with Hugh Masekela at the North Campus of Bow Valley College under the theme: “The Power of Music in Social Transformation.”
As a well-educated and well-read man and as a veteran of the anti-Apartheid movement Masekela came across as an exceedingly able extemperaneous speaker on a variety of subjects albeit a calm, genial and grandfatherly one.
He was born in 1939 in South Africa in Witbank, a place Masekela described as a red neck coal mining town.
Even so, music was all around. Masekela described himself as being invaded by music in a country pregnant with it. There were migrant labourers all around who brought with them their music, dance and pageantry. Virtually nothing was done without music, which was a part of everyday life. He collected records with an uncle, constantly listening to them on a gramophone and remembered that he was always singing. He initially took up the piano and received his first trumpet at the age of fourteen when he was in a boarding school run by the prominent anti-Apartheid figure Trevor Huddlestone. After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 he left the country to attend the Guildhall School of Music.
Having subsequently had the opportunity to live in various places in Africa and around the world he came to appreciate that music and theatre could be major catalysts for change. In the 1960s there was a flowering of protest activity through the arts prompted by disillusionment with status quo politics. Miriam Makeba even spoke at the U.N. in 1963.
But Masekela noted that politics is a strange thing. What happens when you become free? Amnesia follows freedom fighting as business and money take over. The establishment is always in bed with the government. Nothing much has changed for the poor in South Africa. Masekela has seen first hand that music and musicians are used for cynical purposes.
Artists are expendable from the point of view of government and business. It isn’t in their interests for artists to engender too much change. Arts budgets are always reduced first. If this was not the case, artists would become too dangerous. “Artists who helped us become free may become a danger to us,” e.g. Thomas Mapfumo in Zimbabwe.
Despite the notable efforts of figures the likes of Harry Belafonte, Bob Marley, Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger to effect positive social change Masekela himself said he has never been under any illusion that an outspoken artist can get general support from the public.
Today, Masekela says he is obsessed with heritage restoration because “We are too ‘xeroxed’ as a species, too focused on advancement and growth.” So much heritage has been lost in Africa. To be sure, some of the collective African heritage is dodgy (as would be the case with any culture) but too much of that which is of value has disappeared. So, he is focused on being creative with heritage academies.
Masekela closed by asserting that the arts are not a solitary occupation. You have to take up the responsibility of trying to affect people with your art. Life is about giving. When you give, you get. You have to want to do what you are doing and to do it as best or as well as you can. In the arts you can go on for a long time but you’ve got to work hard at it. But do not compare yourself to others all the time and do not carry yourself as though you think you are the best.
Later in the evening when Masekela strode on stage with his horn he was joined by Cameron Ward on guitar; Fala Zulu on bass; Randall Skippers on keyboard; Lee Roy Sauls on drums; and Francis Fuster on percussion.
Masekela’s sound is rooted in the jazz realm and often seems to echo Miles Davis but has of late re-incorporated elements of his South African heritage. Even at the age of 74 he remians impressively agile, supple and playful as a stage performer.
His musicians borrow liberally from various other sources including Congolese music and, apparently, Jimi Hendrix in the case of Cameron Ward; traditional South African township rhythms alongside Billy Preston type soloing in the case of Randall Skippers; West African style percussion in the case of Francis Fuster; Latin inflected stuff here and there; and on and on.
Highlights of the thoroughly enjoyable evening included renditions of ‘Stimela’ (The Coal Train Song), ‘Lady’, ’Grazing in the Grass’, and ‘Bring Him Back Home’.
Masekela dedicated the night’s performance to people looking for peace in their own countries and those affected by natural disasters.