The Interview – Hugh Masekela: The art of survival

2013-08-11 14:00

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Jazz maestro Hugh Masekela is world famous for his soulful and spirited trumpet and voice. But Charl Blignaut wanted to meet the man behind the music. Bra Hugh shoots straight from the hip

Bra Hugh Masekela won’t be reading this interview. He never reads what’s written about him, he says, because life’s too short to worry about what journalists think. He would rather use his energy on getting his audiences dancing.

When we arrive at Native Rhythms studios in Rosebank, Joburg, the legend is out on the balcony having a chat with his manager. Then he’s on the phone. Then he’s back outside, then he’s on his phone again, then joking with a few girls in the band. When we do meet, I hold out my hand and he stretches out his arms. He’s a hugger.

“I haven’t shaken hands in a few years,” he says in his gravelly voice.

He’s an impish man, his spirit way more youthful than his 74 years.

The rehearsal space has a stage and musical instruments, purple walls and orange chairs. There’s a sign that reads: “No eating, no drinking, only bottled water.” Someone has written in by hand: “And Ultra Mel: Skot so hard.”

“I like it here,” Masekela says of the studios. “I think I should buy it.”

He’s just been rehearsing for a mini European tour. He’ll be playing a few spots on the South African Cultural Season in France and then the Paris Jazz Festival. He takes another call.

There’s a strip of photos of famous South African musicians along the ceiling. He’ll no doubt have played or recorded with every one of them. Plus Janis Joplin, Harry Belafonte, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Fela Kuti, Jimi friggin’ Hendrix.

Suddenly, he appears behind us again. “Are you ready? Or should I ask it in R&B? (sings) Are you reeeeady?”

Then he takes another call. He ­returns and then yawns. “Sorry for yawning. I won’t yawn on camera.”

How do you do it at your age? How do you tour so hectically and meet so many engagements?

I’m fit man! I mean, except for the expected aches and pains of my age. I walk, I swim, I do floor exercises, I do calisthenics, I’ve been doing t’ai chi for the past 10 years. Plus I eat the right stuff most of the time.

Once in a while, I treat myself to a cheesecake or carrot cake. I’m not evangelical about health, but I try not to mess myself up, because I did for many years and I was lucky not to die from what I did.

So I sort of appreciate my life much more deeply. I take care of myself. And then I love what I do. I’ve been doing it for more than 60 years.

You look juiced when you’re on stage. Does performing give you ­energy?

No. You have to create your energy because it eats it up, it eats it up.

I was watching a clip of you at the Grammys this year. You had all these old guys on their feet and they have no idea what a makoti is, but they were singing along.

Wherever we go, we try to get the people to dance. Even in Japan and China, where they giggle, we say stand up, dance, it helps you release things.

It was quite a brave thing you did, speaking out about your cocaine and alcohol problem. It’s a problem in music.

Not just music. In South Africa, it’s a national problem. Drinking is such a culture here that people don’t realise what it’s doing to them.

I was born in a shebeen and I only realised when I left here, when I was 20, that I was already a bona fide ­alcoholic. When I went public, we helped quite a few people with the foundation that we started. But then I found out later that really, when the patient doesn’t want to get well, there is nothing you can do for them.

We have a long, addictive history. As a nation, we are in trouble with many things. We’re the drinking champions, we’re the raping champions. We have problems, and it’s not addressed by either business or government. Even in our political and business ­society, we have major drinking.

You’re talking politics. How do you feel about Malema, Nkandlagate and these things?

We voted for freedom, you know. It comes with its own monsters. Somehow it went out of control and I don’t understand it any more.

I don’t even like making political comments any more because how can I comment on something I thought I understood, but I don’t any more? So I don’t even think about it.

I just feel very bad for the people who gave their lives, for the families who lost their relatives. All those ­people who put their bodies against the guns and the tanks, and the Nyalas and the Zola Budds – they really don’t have any rewards for what they did.

It seems like, in most places, after freedom and the first votes, it falls apart because there are always the ­opportunists. We in show business live in a world of opportunists, so to a certain extent we’re immune.

But it’s sad. It’s sad for the people.

Your music’s always been very tied to the struggle.

First of all, it’s not my music. I come from here, so I found it here. I grew up in rallies and I grew up in boycotts, and I grew up in protests.

What would have happened, do you think, if you’d stayed here, if you hadn’t gone into exile?

I would be dead. I would have been killed. Because the one thing I grew up with is not to take s**t from ­anybody. So when I left this country, nobody was happier than my mother. She cried tears of joy.

Do you believe in a god? Are you a Christian?

No, I’m not a Christian. My participation in music is so full blast, 24 hours a day. And that’s my religion. I think I’m as spiritual as the pope, ­because I spend as much time in my spirituality as he does.

But I don’t have to go to an edifice. I don’t have to go and pray with a whole lot of other people who I don’t know. I’m a traditional person.

I have a major respect for nature. I’m an environmentalist.

My parents were community workers and I think that’s more spiritual and more religious than going to church and thumping on some book.

I don’t criticise anybody, but I just don’t understand religion. Like I don’t understand nationalism. These are the two things that cause wars. I don’t understand why they are ­supposed to be good things.

Alex is the place you regard as your home?

No. I grew up in Alexandra. I regard the world as my home.

Do you ever spend time in Alex?

Sometimes I go to Joe’s Butchery. There are a few shisa nyamas that I visit. I have old friends there. The home I grew up in is a tavern now. It’s called Shangri La.

Do you still drink?

Oh yes. I have a drink now and then. A little wine now and again. Sometimes I’ll have a shot. But I ­understand the art of not destroying myself.

Read more on:    hugh masekela  |  musician

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