Many lives packed into one

2018-01-28 00:06
Hugh Masekela plays at the Durban Botanic Gardens. The jazzman’s mortal remains will be interred, as is the way of all flesh, but his legacy will, undoubtedly, live on for generations to come. Picture: Rajesh Jantilal.

Hugh Masekela plays at the Durban Botanic Gardens. The jazzman’s mortal remains will be interred, as is the way of all flesh, but his legacy will, undoubtedly, live on for generations to come. Picture: Rajesh Jantilal.

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The towering jazz giant waged a heroic battle with prostate cancer but finally gave in when the heavens ordered: Time’s up.

The colossal musical tree has fallen but its roots extend deep and wide, ensuring his legendary status will remain for generations to come. That distinct Hugh-ish trumpet sound is set to reverberate well into the future. While his mortal remains will be interred, as is the way of all flesh, his legacy will, undoubtedly, live on for generations to come.

As the Bard of Avon wrote in Twelfth Night: “If music be the food of love, play on. Give me excess of it that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die.”

Indeed, the maestro would have loved to play on, much to the delight of a multitude of his global followers but, when the band leader in the sky calls for you, you have to go.

The towering jazz giant had waged a high-spirited, heroic battle with prostate cancer since 2008 but finally gave in when the heavens ordered: Time’s up.

The gallantry he displayed up to the last breath of his life is part of the great heritage of Bo-Masekela.

Larger-than-life Ramapolo Hugh Masekela was born of noble parentage – Pauline Bowers and Thomas Masekela – who were highly respected community members with illustrious careers in social service.

Bro Hugh was born in Witbank, now Emalahleni, on April 4 1939 and his parents’ dream was that their first-born child and the only son would go to university and become a medical doctor or a prominent legal eagle as most of his peers had eventually become.

The young Hugh was sent to the best schools for Africans at the time, including St Peter’s College in Rosettenville, south of Johannesburg.

St Peter’s made a profound and lasting impression on the young lad. The mission school was a melting pot of South African talent. It was where the young Masekela met the Mbere brothers Aggrey and Jiji, among others, who both later qualified as medical doctors.

But it was his friendship at the school with young Stompie Manana from Sophiatown that changed the course of direction for the teenage Hugh – getting hooked on fashion, girls and music. Stompie later became a legendary trumpeter in his own right and Hugh looked up to him.

In his formative years Hugh grew up playing piano which his father had bought him. But when he got to St Peter’s he switched to trumpet, which was to become his life-time companion and source of inspiration to many who followed his music.

The school’s head Father Trevor Huddleston bought Hugh his first trumpet and soon the youngsters formed the Huddleston Jazz Band, featuring Knox Kaloate, George Makhene, Monty Mahobe and Henley “Bach” Magobiane.

The Huddleston Jazz Band launched the musical career of Bro Hugh and he became hungry for the real theatre music offered by big gigs and concerts in Sophiatown, Alexandra, Soweto, Springs, Randfontein, Pretoria and Vereeniging.

No doubt Uncle Tom was very angry and annoyed with the turn of events, but there was no turning back for the young man. He had made up his mind.

At a lunch meeting in August last year Bro Hugh recalled the incident when his father summoned Bo-Masekela to admonish the youngster, who in his view was going astray. One of his educated uncles had said to him: “Bo-Masekela ga ba bapale di-bugul.” (“The Masekelas don’t play bugles” – meaning we do more serious stuff – education).

Musical journey

The glorious musical journey began when the 17 year-old started spending holidays with his uncle in Springs where he played with Peter Ntsane’s Merry Makers’ Orchestra, which featured the great trumpeters Elijah Nkwanyana and Banzi Bangani. The young man was immensely influenced by Nkwanyana, who he started mimicking – a style he played for the rest of his career.

Born on the cusp of the second world war, the white community had been split down the middle, with the Afrikaners on the side of Nazi Germany and the English-speaking on the side of the Allied forces led by Britain.

The oppressed Africans were at the receiving end of the racism unleashed by the Nationalists, who were bitterly opposed to the British colonial rule of the Union of South Africa.

In 1948, when Hugh was nine, the National Party won the general election and became the new government of the Union. It set about implementing the white supremacy policy of apartheid, dividing the South African society along racial lines, thereby extending rights as well as privileges such as education and jobs to the white minority at the expense of the black majority.

In 1953 the Nats introduced Bantu education in terms of which black Africans would receive inferior education, designed by Dr Hendrik Verwoerd to make them “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. The Bantu Education Act transferred African education from the control of missionary schools to the department of native affairs headed by Dr Verwoerd. This forced schools such as St Peter’s and many others like it across the country to close down.

Africans were forced off their land to make way for Afrikaner farmers. Hugh’s grandparents Hopane and Mamoshaba Masekela were forcibly removed from their farm without compensation in Wallmansthal, north of Pretoria. The grand old man, whose family Hugh sings about in Bo-Masekela, died a bitter man shortly after the forced removals because he had lost his land and his means of production. It is perhaps telling that the ANC elective conference last month resolved to expropriate land without compensation – land which Bo-Masekela lost more than 60 years ago.

The turning point for Hugh, however, was the Sharpeville massacre on March 21 1960, barely two weeks before he turned 21.

The brutality of apartheid had come down hard on places such as Dorkay House in downtown Johannesburg because the Group Areas Act would not allow Africans to hang around the city, a place considered to belong to white South Africa. Africans were to be confined to the Bantustans, homelands created along tribal groups.

But the music industry continued to flourish, with Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, Mackay Davashe, Zakes Nkosi, Kippie Moeketsi, Dollar Brand (now Abdullah Ibrahim), Jonas Gwangwa, Thandi Klaasen, Dorothy Masuku, Caiphus Semenya, Letta Mbulu, the Woodpeckers and the Sharptown Swingsters making waves across the Reef and other big cities.

The music of these remarkable cultural activists kept the spirit of the nation alive and preserved the sanity of millions of the oppressed people who were subjected to the most repressive regime in the world.

The production of the jazz opera King Kong, by the legendary Todd Matshikiza, opened a world of opportunities for black artists who had been suffocating under the spell of apartheid.

The Nationalist government was cracking down on artists, political activists and a host of other people opposed to apartheid, culminating in the banning of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress on March 28 1960, a week after Sharpeville.

Many people were jailed and hundreds fled into exile, including Hugh’s younger sister Barbara. Hugh left on May 16 1960, slipping out of the country without being noticed by the Special Branch.

The experiences of the 1950s shaped Hugh Masekela’s music and his repertoire is the encapsulation of the struggle for liberation.

When he finally settled in the US, he blended his township music with American bebop played by heroes such as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Stitt and Cannonball Adderley.

In New York Dizzy and Harry Belafonte became his friends and mentors. He studied music in New York and got introduced to the vibrant US music industry. He encountered the real rough and tumble of US life with its own form of racial segregation and the reign of terror unleashed on African American families by the Ku Klux Klan. He had arrived in the US at the height of the civil rights movement led by, among others, Dr Martin Luther King. He also stumbled into women, drugs and big money, elements that characterised life in New York then.

He soon made a big name for himself, rubbing shoulders with jazz giants, such as John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus and Miles Davis, among others.

In 1964 Hugh married Mama Afrika Miriam Zenzile Makeba, but the marriage lasted only two years. It might have lasted a short while, but the flame continued to burn for a lifetime, with the couple occasionally having LBs – love back in township parlance. Bro Hugh remained eternally grateful to the unspeakable generosity of Mama Makeba. After their formal separation, he married Chris Calloway, daughter of renowned film star Cab Calloway, but this also did not last for long.

Much later Bro Hugh had an affair with Jessie La Pierre who bore his son Selema in 1972. Dr Tshidi Ndamse gave birth to Bro Hugh’s second child, daughter Motlalepula, in 1977.

Despite the roller coaster ride of New York life, Bro Hugh’s music career began to flourish. He appeared with renowned international stars on big US stages. He started writing scores of songs, reflecting on his life, the experiences of his people back in South Africa and the undying determination for freedom.

Still Grazing remains, undoubtedly, the masterpiece of Bro Hugh’s compositions and this brilliant piece launched his career in the US.

Bro Hugh’s apartment in Manhattan, New York, became a home-away-from-home for many South African exiles, including Bro Willie Kgositsile, Peter Davidson and Joe Louw. His generosity showed in how he received and treated his fellow countrymen who virtually camped in his tiny apartment, running huge telephone bills and polishing off whatever bottle of whisky and cognac found in the house.

Bro Hugh traversed the African continent, making a home for himself in Liberia, Ghana and Nigeria. In Liberia he cared for and brought up his nephew Mabusha, Barbara’s son, and the two became very close.

He forged very close ties with Nigerian jazz legend Anikulapo Fela Kuti. The jazz pair recorded some of the greatest African hits. His partnership with Ghanaian band Hedzoleh Soundz also made waves across the US, culminating in the launch of their album called Hugh Masekela Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz. West Africa became his second home, with Kuti remaining one of his greatest music companions on the continent.

In September last year I concluded an agreement with Bro Hugh and the Masekela Foundation to document his life across Africa and how he continued to be the continent’s ambassador of goodwill to the world.

The jazz icon blew the last note from his sickbed when he gave up his final breath early on Tuesday morning, signalling the end of an era.

The earthly mission has been accomplished and he leaves behind a rich legacy of music and the arts. Many generations to come will drink from this fountain of musical and cultural wisdom, developed over six decades. His was, indeed, many lives packed into one – father, brother, grandpa, trumpeter and writer of film music. Above all, he was the son of the soil, a product of the brutal system of apartheid and he used his God-given talent to advance the cause of liberation and human justice.

Death be not proud … the roots of the colossal tree will live long.

Molefe is a veteran journalist and executive director of Immedia, a media technology company

Read more on:    hugh masekela  |  culture  |  music

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