Hugh Masekela’s trumpet: Infinitely more eloquent than any political speech

Hugh Masekela.
Hugh Masekela.

On sultry evenings in the ANC camps in Angola, the soldiers would chant and dance in what was called the “jazz hour”, a time of reaffirmation. This is how celebrated author Mandla Langa, exiled in 1974, describes the life in Angola’s camps where he lived for a while.

Jazz music, he says, became a propelling force in the struggle for the liberation struggle of our country. “Internationally, artists like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, once caged birds at home who were freed to soar in exile, collaborated with global household names like Harry Belafonte, Quincy Jones and many others to popularise the struggle of the people of South Africa.”

The marriage of jazz and politics, instead of stratifying the artistry and the artist, rather gave the exiled artist more freedom to create, and the support of their artistry ensured that artists like Masekela and others became fountains of hope that can be found in song and dance and the resilience to make something that wasn’t there before. As a result, jazz has had a special role in the social and cultural politics of South Africa.

Occasionally, there were artists who felt that their music contribution to the struggle for a free South Africa was less remarkable and would even attempt to join the armed struggle. But OR Tambo, the godfather of all the exiled South Africans, would forbid it. He valued highly the contributions made by the multiple artists who made a life abroad in keeping the struggle alive on stage. Tambo knew that the struggle was both a physical and a psychological one, and art was a powerful form of struggle that could move even the hardest of hearts.

In an interview after the January 8 statement of 1985, Tambo made it clear that “as part of our struggle, the ANC gives all the encouragement to those South African artists who, in their works, are fighting against the apartheid system with all its injustices”. South African jazz and artistry was also a preservation of our heritage over and against an apartheid state that wanted to ensure that by the time their social engineering project is done, as black people, we would lose an ability to identify ourselves and our proud history. We were to be pariahs in our own land and in our own cultural heritage.

Bra Hugh, however, went further than juxtaposing jazz and political struggle.

He is described as an artist who, in his music, vividly portrayed the struggles and sorrows, as well as the joys and passions of his country. Through his trumpet, Bra Hugh proved that no amount of subjugation and pain, both for those cut off from the land of their forefathers and those who remained under the heavy yoke of the wayward apartheid state, could succeed in killing the spirit of the people and their will to serve humanity. He would protect his joy, he would share it and when freedom finally came, his humanity would have proven itself triumphant and the jailers and killers would be put to shame.

Bra Hugh went on to create. Forging friendships and building a catalogue and a world, from the London’s Guildhall School of Music to the Manhattan School of Music in New York, criss-crossing Africa from west and east to central Africa, meeting musicians, making music, creating magic and ultimately bringing all those people into the anti-apartheid movement. It was almost a double burden, to create and to survive, to share the joy of life and the pain of its limits, wondering if you have not enjoyed life too much while families back home are torn asunder by madness and cruelty. The country that Masekela left, gripped by ignorance and bigotry aligned with power, was a dangerous place in which to live and he would spend 30 years telling the world that it was in them to force the hand of the South African government to change course and let the majority of its citizens out of bondage.

On February 11 1990, South Africa got a new birth. Right there, Masekela knew that music, the trumpet, had saved his life. And maybe the country’s too.

The other side of music

My own encounter with Bra Hugh was on the other side of music, the passionate sounds of poetry and spoken word. I attended a reading and poetry session of up and coming but highly talented artists at Wits University in the late 2000s.

By this time, Bra Hugh was already as iconic as the gnarled camel thorn trees or red sands in the Kalahari; he was as part of the fabric of our society as was jazz itself. Imagine my disbelief when I arrived late at the venue and there was Bra Hugh, sitting on the floor along the aisles of the venue, as people who arrived late would do, but he was as comfortable as a person who’s grateful just to be at the venue.

As I joined him on the floor I was soon absorbed by the sheer talent at the venue: indeed, performances were lifting us to a familiar world, a world of our hopes and dreams.

Soon it was time for the audience to engage the artists. I consider myself to have high levels of curiosity so I was quick off the mark to ask questions. After our questions were answered, Bra Hugh was not only showing high levels of curiosity but would reiterate our questions and then ask the artist about the change in his/her voice depending on which question was asked.

It was getting intricate and awesome. Bra Hugh was helping us get into the intimate insights of the inner workings of the poets minds. That in itself was poetic. To me, Bra Hugh was a poet, or maybe even a poets’ poet.

Farewell Bra Hugh. You have a great story to tell when you reach the pearly gates. Like Madiba, tell them we have climbed many hills, we have fallen, but we keep climbing. We are far from whence we came, there are still many miles ahead but we have the strength and the will to carry on.

• Yonela Diko is the media liaison officer for the Western Cape ANC

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