South Africa in 1991 was a strange place. In 1990 the unbanning of liberation movements, the release of political leaders and the start of the repeal of apartheid legislation had given us all false hope that freedom was imminent.
By 1991, however, euphoria had given way to realism. The apartheid government was waging an ugly war on the people through death squads and the so-called Third Force that aided its surrogates such as the Inkatha Freedom Party. At the Codesa negotiations in Kempton Park, FW de Klerk’s National Party was doing its best to frustrate the process and extract maximum privileges for the minority it represented. Reports about conditions in exile had shown up some heroes of the struggle who had once been deified by the people – to be mere mortals capable of greed and cruelty.
Into this confused space came the Sekunjalo Tour, billed as icon Hugh Masekela’s welcome home party. Over four months he crisscrossed South Africa, and played at 20 venues that were always sold out. On tour with him were bands and musicians who had been inspired by this legend and had become household names during his exile. Here these musos were, sharing the limelight with their inspiration and role model.
Others had been in exile in different parts of the world and Masekela wanted to co-celebrate the homecoming with them. This man was never going to party alone and hog the love and adulation for himself.
I was fortunate to catch one of the Johannesburg legs of the tour. To this day I count Sekunjalo as THE best live music experience I have ever had – and which I will probably ever have. The music was powerful and the stage performances extra-terrestrial. Everyone who got on to stage had so much fun and gave it everything they could. You could feel that Bra Hugh was relishing the connection with the home crowd, as they sang and danced along.
It was an intoxicating atmosphere akin to one big family reunion – with Masekela as the head of the household leading the celebrations.
For those few hours we forgot the carnage on the streets and the intransigence of the National government and its surrogates at the negotiating table. Mercifully there were no cellphones to spoil the ambiance with funny ringtones; no intrusive lights of those taking pictures with their devices. There were no instant newsfeeds to tell us what was going on outside and jolt us out of our collective trance. There was no Twitter, Instagram or Facebook to which people would be posting instead of enjoying the moment. It was just beautiful.
On that beautiful evening we felt this precious thing called freedom. It was here. When Bra Hugh blew his trumpet we could also see the walls of Jericho collapsing.
We rediscovered the euphoria of February 1990 when we had thought the big day was almost upon us. We didn’t know as we sang along to Bra Hugh’s Stimela, Sankomota’s Waiting for Your Name to be Called and Bayete’s Mbombela that the big day was still a long three years away. Nor did we care, really. The family reunion was just like being in a free country. All thanks to Hugh Masekela, the family head who had got us all together.
Such was the effect of Sekunjalo that some people followed the tour to other towns and cities from where it was reported that the spell was just as powerful as it was in Johannesburg.
I watched Masekela perform many times since that bewitching day. Even as he aged, his on-stage presence remained as electric. The last few times I saw him perform was at his 75th birthday celebration at the Soweto Theatre in 2014 and at the Joy of Jazz festival at the Sandton Convention Centre in 2016. On both occasions he performed alongside his soul brother Oliver Mtukudzi. They sang, blew, strummed and got down like 25-year olds with four decades left of life in them.
On these two occasions – as in all the other Bra Hugh nights I had been to – I was transported back to that night at the Standard Bank Arena where he got us to taste and smell freedom.
The gift of that night is one I will always treasure and one for which I will forever be grateful.