The band behind Bra Hugh

Johannesburg - Leeroy Sauls played drums for Bra Hugh for almost a decade, an experience that shaped his life and brought incredible career highlights as they travelled all around the world.

“Rest In Peace my music father thanx (sic) for the unforgettable journey and life lessons that not even the best tertiary education could afford,” Sauls posted on his Facebook account on Tuesday as the news of Bra Hugh’s death broke.

We spoke to Sauls over the phone and asked him about his favourite moments with the jazz legend.

“Playing at the Lincoln Centre in New York on Bra Hugh’s 75th birthday. The years have been like a roller coaster. We played the Sydney Opera House ... and in New York like six times and the reception we got was mind-blowing. I don’t think people understand the power he had in those other countries. He stood for heritage, and that is what he wants to be remembered for.

“It was beautiful to see the love people showed him from Europe to Russia and Brazil. They all knew his music. He broke boundaries and he would make me feel as important – it was never like I was just a musician.”

Dynamics were an essential element in performing in this band.

Sauls explains: “Drums are a very acoustic instrument and when you’re playing with emotion, you need to play softly and build the track naturally. I remember when he told us, ‘Here, we don’t just play, we sing.’ And to always be aware and never be louder than the others ... one energy.”

He remembers that Bra Hugh didn’t struggle with jet lag or with long hours performing.

“We would all be drained and he’d be fresh and ready to go. ‘Let’s go guys,’ he’d tell us, always driving us to be better. He was never negative about his condition, either.”

Sauls said Masekela had immense respect for people and took time to really listen.

“He was never selfish. We spent many years on the road and he taught us to never stop practising.”

Masekela pushed his band to be more creative by keeping their minds open and their heritage alive.

Sauls says: “I’m coloured and he always told me to delve into my roots.”

Cameron Ward was very emotional when we spoke to him. His wife was screening his calls and, for some reason, the gifted guitar player decided #Trending would be the first publication he opened up to. Fighting back tears, the man some people call Hugh’s protégé shared memories of his mentor.

“I joined him in 2009; I was 21 years old. How I got in was through my efforts with a couple of other artists like Jimmy Dludlu, who recommended me. When I got the call, it still hadn’t sunk in. I was young and based in Cape Town, and he gave me the chance to see the world,” says Ward.

The first show Ward performed with Masekela was in Zimbabwe.

“He was the first guy who said he believed in me. I wasn’t able to see him last week, but he called me. He couldn’t talk much, but he was trying to reach out; maybe he was trying to say bye … and now he’s gone. His last words to me were to always be proud and fly the African flag, ‘I am proud of you and never forget who you are. I will always love you, Sonny.’”

Looking back, Ward remembers the early days playing in the band.

“When I joined, I was very nervous on the day of that first rehearsal. I was playing and he was outside. The moment he stepped in, I lost it and he reassured me that he heard me playing and he told me I was hired. I was very shy and he helped with that.”

Ward shares a story about arriving at a gig in wrinkled clothing. Bra Hugh, who was apparently very strict, told him to remove his clothes and he ironed them for Ward and expected him to always arrive at gigs looking sharp. Ward said that, with age, he understood why Masekela was always urging them to be their best.

“He would call me and ask me to come with him to a lecture or an interview, and I never understood why he was always on my case. But I get it now; he wanted me to be a proud African. I am not looking forward to saying goodbye.”

Ward says: “Money could never repay what he gave me. I was the youngest member. He was 70, the bass player was 50 … he still made me feel important; more than just a musician. Once, Quincy Jones came to see us perform … my stories with Bra Hugh are endless. All I can do is stick to the promise I made him, to be proud of who I am. He loved all of us; it will take time to get over this.”

(Photos: Supplied/City Press)