Jazz Great Hugh Masekela, Fresh Because He's Fascinated

Apr 19, 2013
Originally published on April 17, 2013 7:58 pm

"I was a good boy," South African jazz legend Hugh Masekela assures NPR's Michel Martin. But still, he says, "as a kid, I was whipped on a slow day at least three times."

Eventually, Masekela told his chaplain, "If I can get a trumpet, Father, I won't bother anybody."

His wish came true.

Within a few years, Louis Armstrong, who'd heard of a talented kid in South Africa, sent the boy his own trumpet. Photographer Alf Kumalo captured Masekela's joy at receiving that gift in an iconic photograph. But Masekela says he has always hated that image: "I lost a girlfriend through that picture," he says. "You know, we were very cool at that time, so that was a very uncool picture." She told him she couldn't be seen with him.

"Barefootin' with your pants rolled up — I mean, how country can you get?" he says.

A few years later, the brutality of apartheid made it impossible for Masekela to stay in South Africa. A former girlfriend, singer and activist Miriam Makeba, encouraged him to go to America. "Forget about London," he says she told him, "this is the place to be."

Masekela recalls how Makeba "blew the States away" and "was on first-name basis with everybody." She and Harry Belafonte soon gave Masekela a scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music. And he worked part time in Belafonte's band, because, Masekela says, the older musician warned him, "They ain't gonna give you no money, you gotta work!"

Masekela had to come to terms with the realization that he might never go home. But what he found most difficult to deal with was the cold. "That really made me homesick," he says, recalling his first experience of snow. He sent a picture of himself to his mother, "and I said, 'I'm not smiling, I'm grimacing.' " Masekela was not sad, though.

"It was the greatest time for music in the States," he recalls. "I was surrounded by so much beauty, and so much generosity, and so much joy. It was a new world. It was the world I wanted to live in when I heard records when I was a small kid."

Both darlings of the South African music scene, Masekela and Makeba had a brief, turbulent marriage during those years. "Our personal relationship was like not even hills, [but] mountains and valleys," he points out, "but Miriam Makeba was the epitome, the very portrait of what Africa was all about. ... She was the most generous person I have ever known."

He brushes off the idea that their marriage was a nightmare. "When you grow up in the township, what me and Miriam went through overseas is very light stuff," he says.

Masekela has spoken candidly in the past about his drug and alcohol use. He points to South Africa's history as a reason why he got addicted. "When I grew up, liquor was illegal for African people in South Africa," so they set up speakeasies — or shebeens. "Drunkenness to a great extent was a form of defiance," he says. He started drinking when he was 13 and was 58 when he finally stopped.

Masekela points out that he didn't get "sober," he just stopped killing himself. "You shouldn't stop enjoying life," he says, "but you just have to stop beating yourself up."

Now 74, Masekela says "I feel like I'm just beginning."

He credits his endless fascination with keeping his music fresh. "If music was the devil, I would need an exorcist. That's how obsessed and possessed I am with it, and I have always been."

And to all young talented musicians who might feel the same, he has this advice: "Whatever you go into, you have to go in there to be the best. ... It's all about passion and honesty and hard work. It might look glamorous, but it takes a lot of hard work."

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's where we speak with those who have made a difference through their work and their lives.

Our guest today is one of Africa's most recognized musicians, a huge name in jazz worldwide, and an international pop star. His 1968 breakout hit, "Grazing in the Grass," was number one on the American pop charts and a worldwide hit.


MARTIN: His impact on the music scene certainly did not end there. He has released some 40 albums, appeared on too many to count. He's appeared with artists as wide ranging as Herb Alpert, The Byrds, Paul Simon, Fela Kuti and the late great Miriam Makeba, to whom he was once married. More on that later.

Now in his 70s, Hugh Masekela is still touring, which is how we somehow persuaded him to stop by our studios when his tour stopped in Washington, D.C., and he is here now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

HUGH MASEKELA: Hello, Michel. Thanks for inviting me.

MARTIN: Let me start by saying you have managed to fit an awful lot into your life, but I want to go back. There is this incredible picture of you on the cover of a memoir you published some years back. This is when Louis Armstrong, who'd heard about your band, sent you his trumpet in South Africa.

MASEKELA: Yeah. I was 16 years old.

MARTIN: Sixteen.


MARTIN: You know, the joy on your face is incredible. It just makes me smile just to look at it.

MASEKELA: Actually, I lost a girlfriend through that picture because...

MARTIN: Really?

MASEKELA: ...we were like very serious dressers. You know, we were very cool at that time, so that was a very uncool picture and like when she saw it in the newspaper, she said, listen, I can't be seen with you barefoot and you got your pants rolled up. I mean how country can you get? And so she dumped me. Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, she kind of made a mistake, huh?

MASEKELA: And I told the photographer, Alf Khumalo, who's like probably the most celebrated photographer in Africa - so I told him - I said, Bra Alf - you know, when somebody's older, you call them Bra. I said, Bra Alf, many of my friends are going to turn their backs on me after they see this picture. He said, this picture is going to last you for the rest of your life. It's going to be your greatest picture. And I hated it so much - when they used to, like, do compilations of African music, first in the '80s, they used to use it for the cover.

MARTIN: It's so beautiful.

MASEKELA: And then when I came...

MARTIN: You're so happy.

MASEKELA: When I came back to South Africa, it was used in everything and so I gave up.

MARTIN: You just gave up? Yeah.


MARTIN: Do you remember, though, how you fell in love with music? Specifically, the trumpet, specifically the horn?

MASEKELA: Well, when I saw a movie about Bix Beiderbecke, a great swing trumpet player, and I'd already been playing the piano for over nine years and I just said, I got to play the trumpet. And I'd always admired Louis Armstrong. I got possessed by music as an infant, so by the time I started playing the trumpet, I was already a bona fide musician and I was playing classical music as well as other things.

And I had a beautiful high tenor voice, you know, like those British boys in the cathedral. Ahhhh.

MARTIN: I see.

MASEKELA: Yes. I asked for that from my chaplain at school. I was always in trouble with the authorities because my attention span was completely off because all I heard was music, so when I looked at the teachers, their mouths were just moving and I was singing all the - Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell and, you know, all the new bebop players that just emerged and we were mesmerized by them. And so, like, that's what I was hearing and whenever my name was called, I ended up at the principal's office because I didn't know the question. And so...

MARTIN: But also, you just had trouble - you just had trouble with authority, period. I mean - right? That's fair to say? You just...

MASEKELA: Not really. Not really. I was a good boy, you know. My mother thought, oh, what a good boy.

MARTIN: Well, it came...

MASEKELA: I mean as a kid I was punished, I was whipped on a slow day at least three times. The preacher said, what do you want to do with your life? I said, if I can get a trumpet, Father, I won't bother anybody anymore. So he got me a trumpet and a trumpet teacher.

MARTIN: It came to pass that you first - I think you went to London first and then you came to New York.


MARTIN: And you were there at such an amazing time. I mean people like Dizzy Gillespie took you under their wing. Right?

MASEKELA: Know what? I was lucky because I was brought to the stage by Miriam Makeba, who was an ex-girlfriend of mine and a dear friend and we'd always dreamt of coming to the States, but she came a year earlier and blew the States away. So she said, hey, you got to come, forget about London, this is the place to be. And she was on a first name basis with everybody. Then she and Harry Belafonte gave me a scholarship to Manhattan School of Music. I also had to work part-time in Harry Belafonte's music publishing, because they ain't going to give you no money, you got to work for, you know, you got to work for your money.


MASEKELA: And they will pay your school fees, got to get you a cheap place to stay, and you got to work, man, you know. And all these people were their friends.

MARTIN: I was going to ask if you can describe what those years were like for you. I mean on the one hand, you must've been terribly homesick.

MASEKELA: The first time I dreamt in English I realized and, you know, that I might never go home, because by then Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte were already banned, you know, and they were sending me to school. I think that the things that were most difficult for me were the cold.

MARTIN: The cold?

MASEKELA: Yeah. The snow and then, I mean that really made me homesick. I remember that my first snow I wrote to my mother right away and I took a picture in the snow. And I said I'm not smiling. I'm grimacing from the cold. It is really cold here.

MARTIN: Were you sad during that time? Was it hard or was it so exciting. It's so exciting

MASEKELA: No, I wasn't sad because it was a great time for me. I mean I was exposed to like the greatest music. It was the greatest time in music in the states, I think, you know, the 1960s and I was really fascinated by what I was doing. I felt like I had come to the right place at the right time. But, you know, when you're a student and you're in a foreign country you miss your relatives most, you know, especially when I was hungry, I was like, damn, Saturday afternoon. I just could've just gone to my aunt's place and like make the tripe stew, you know, with the hominy grits and I'm talking to myself. And so one day I was talking to myself in the park, on a Sunday afternoon, and I had a tap on my shoulder. And this cop said, excuse me, buddy, you know, see those folks over there? I say, yeah. They say they say they've been looking at you for two hours; you've been talking to yourself.


MASEKELA: Are you OK? Then I explained to him what I was going through. He went, oh, yeah, OK, now I know what that must feel like. And he knew everything about South Africa, and those bastards.

MARTIN: He knew all about South Africa?

MASEKELA: And then we became friends for many years.

MARTIN: Really?

MASEKELA: Because he was a young policeman. I mean I was much younger. That's how homesick you can be. But I was surrounded by so much beauty and so much generosity, and so much joy. And it was a new world. It was the world that I wanted to live in. When I heard records when I was a small kid, I thought that people lived in the Gramophone, you know, Victrola...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

MASEKELA: ...and I wanted to get in there and go and come and live with them.


MASEKELA: And now here I was living with them. I mean it was, you couldn't ask for anything more.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with musical giant Hugh Masekela. We happened to catch up with him when he is in Washington, D.C. on his latest tour.

You know, people these days often think of artists as either, you know, popular or as political, but when you came up it was not a difference between the two. People were very interested in politics who were also very popular. And one of your, your song "Bring Him Back Home," about Nelson Mandela, it became an anti-apartheid anthem in the late 1980s. And I just want to play a little bit.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUPSINGERS: (Singing) Bring back Nelson Mandela. Bring him back home to Soweto. I want to see him walking down the streets of South Africa one, one, once more.

MARTIN: He's on our minds because he's been ill, you know.

MASEKELA: Well, I don't know in other countries, but like when I grew up, you were not political, you were bombarded by politics. So like we grew up in protests rallies and boycott marches and from time to time, there would be shootings and you'd watch people getting killed. And we're not naive and we're not like wow, there's a thing called politics.


MASEKELA: Were under its boot and we wanted to get out of there and that's how we grew up. Mandela was the symbol. I mean when I see him I always say well done, old man. It was the voice of all those people, they were a whole gang of them - like, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu and like all those people who came and brought us the direction to get out of our chains.

MARTIN: Yeah. Speaking of...

MASEKELA: They did their job and they're a hard act to follow. The greatest thing is that they did for us was I said like, never again will one group of people get to dominate another, you know, and we must try and forgive those who oppressed us and like build our country with them and teach them the gift of love and forgiveness.

MARTIN: Well, speaking though, of being free from chains, one of the things that was - I don't know why I didn't know this - I read this in your book, how just deeply involved you were with every drug there was. I mean alcohol, cocaine, you were really explicit. Well, how are you now, by the way? All good? You're good?

MASEKELA: Well, what you see is what you get, right?

MARTIN: I hear you. Why...

MASEKELA: I mean how do I look for a 74-year-old guy?

MARTIN: You look great. Oh, you look, you look pretty great.


MARTIN: You know, controversy of now, giving compliments about people's appearance, you may have heard.

MASEKELA: How sexist can you be?

MARTIN: I know. I'm sorry. Apologize. But you opened the door.


MARTIN: So, you look very well.

MASEKELA: It's all the president's fault.

MARTIN: I know.

MASEKELA: He started this.


MARTIN: Do you have any thoughts about why? Was that just the way it was at the time?

MASEKELA: When I grew up, liquor was illegal for African people in South Africa. It only was legalized - I was here a year when it was legalized in South Africa.


MASEKELA: And there were speakeasies all over. I mean every fifth house in the townships of the rural areas was a speakeasy. And my grandmother, a speakeasy and they were called shebeens and I was born in my grandmother's shebeen. And drunkenness, to a great extent, was a form of defiance, you know. And there were people who were famous for being great drinkers. There were people when they entered the room people would take off their hats, said this man can drink. There was that prestige. I started drinking when I was 13 years old. But I started drinking out of like peer pressure because I had the most beautiful voice and they was beginning to look at girls. And my friend said man, we can't hang out with you anymore because we're beginning to look at the babes and here you are singing in their range, you know, it puts a little damper on us, you know, so we - so finally I said what should I do? I said what do you have to drink and smoke so like your voice can get messed up and then you can sing bass?


MASEKELA: And I worked on that and then I, a year later I was singing bass, my voice was destroyed and the girls were not impressed. But...

MARTIN: How old were you when you finally got sober? How old were you? I forget now. You were...

MASEKELA: Fifty-eight.

MARTIN: Fifty-eight.

MASEKELA: Yeah. I didn't get sober. I stopped killing myself. There's a difference. You know, like I think that you shouldn't stop enjoying life but you just have to stop beating yourself up and other people and hanging out with people who are beating themselves up.

MARTIN: What has kept your music so fresh and exciting? What has kept you so continuing to work?

MASEKELA: Well, first of all, if music was the devil I would need an exercised. That's how, you know, obsessed and possessed I am with it and I've always been like that. So as a result, I accessed every kind of music that there is and it's like fathomless. And I think like when you're not tunnel visioned, when you're not wearing blinkers, when you listen to everything and you access every culture that you can probably access, you become a better person, you understand humanity much more. And music is a gateway to the world. You know, so I think that what I do is always fresh because I'm always like I'm fascinated by everything.

MARTIN: I can't let you go without asking you about Miriam Makeba because you were such a, you are both so brilliant. But just hearing about your relationship, it just sounds like it's just like such a nightmare on one hand, on the other hand so; I don't even know what to make of it really.

MASEKELA: Oh, yeah, our personal...


MASEKELA: ...relationship was like not even hills, mountains and valleys. But Miriam Makeba was the epitome, the very portrait of what Africa was about. You know, her grandmother and her great-grandmother and her mother were all traditional healers. Miriam Makeba helped everybody she could have a chance to help, regardless of who they were. And she helped every liberation movement in Africa and outside Africa - the civil rights movements, in South America. And she would take her last clothes and give them to students or like buy medicine for refugee camps. She was the most generous person I have ever known, you know, and...

MARTIN: But your personal relationship just sounds like a nightmare. Just...

MASEKELA: Well, it wasn't a nightmare for us, you know.


MASEKELA: It might look like a nightmare but it was, when you grow up in the township and what me and Miriam went through overseas is really light stuff...


MASEKELA: ...compared to like what happens even in the ghetto, you know, where like there's, you know, there's even killings, you know, because people out there are pretty loose.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you have had such an amazing life. I don't know, you've seen so many things; you've been part of so many musical movements. I don't even know where to start. But do you have some advice for someone who loves music as you do?

MASEKELA: Well, I think that the best advice you can give anybody is that if they love something and they want to be involved with it, the first thing they have to do is to be honest with themselves. How much do they like this and do they have a passion for it? And second, they have to be like honest about have they been told that they seem to be very talented in this field? Because whatever you go into you have to go in there to be the best. There's no formulas. It's all about passion and honesty and hard work. It might look glamorous but it takes a lot of hard work. The blessing with the arts is that you can do it forever until you drop dead. That's the blessing. And I'm 74 and I feel that I'm just beginning, so I think I'm very fortunate to have been like bedeviled by music.

MARTIN: Well, we're so glad you are.


MARTIN: Musical legend Hugh Masekela is on tour in the U.S. He was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much for speaking with us. It has been our pleasure to host you.

MASEKELA: Thank you, Michel. I'll be don't charge me for this.


MARTIN: No. I will charge you one question - one question. What song shall we go out on? You can pick something.

MASEKELA: Go out on Mandela again.

MARTIN: Go out on a Mandela again?


MARTIN: Oh, OK. Then we will do.

MASEKELA: There will never be a more appropriate time.

MARTIN: All right. And we'll go out on "Bring Him Back Home."


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Bring back Nelson Mandela. Bring him back home to Soweto. I want to see him walking down the streets of South Africa - tomorrow. Bring back Nelson Mandela. Bring him back home to Soweto. I want to see him walking down the streets of South Africa, one, one, once more.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.