Masekela: Black Power & Music

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(Masekela---musical legend and freedom fighter).

Along with the spectacular Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela was at the forefront in bringing the sounds of South Africa to America.

He did it again last night, November 16th, at 8:00 p.m., as part of The Sounds of South Africa concert held at City Center, located at West 55th Street in Manhattan.  He shared the spotlight with jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and the Soweto String Quartet. 

Known for his charismatic blend of upper register lines, repetitive phrases, tonal resonance and note bending on trumpet and flugelhorn, Masekela is adept in the genres of pop, R&B, Afropop, funk, jazz and disco.  He is an international phenomenon noted for his extraordinary bebop and balladry skills.

“The South African Tourism Office in partnership with the National Geographic people are featuring artists from South Africa via this concert� explained Masekela to The Black Star News, in an interview before his performance.  “The music is a kaleidoscope of South Africa’s urban, traditional, and jazz related music. The concert’s purpose is to encourage people to come visit a free and liberated South Africa,� stated the trumpet master.  

“People know South Africa via its liberation movement, music, and struggle. Now we want them to see the free South Africa.  During our struggle, Miriam Makeba was a beacon as was Harry Belafonte, who has been involved with South Africa’s freedom struggle since 1959," he said. Belafonte introduced Masekela at the performance last night, to a resounding standing ovation.

Born in 1939, and because of Apartheid, Masekela left South Africa at age 21, returning at age 51.  “Growing up in South Africa was terrible.  South Africa was no different than what African Americans experienced in America during slavery and afterwards.  South Africa was a place of institutionalized and legislative slavery.  As far back as the 19th century African Americans were allowed to engage in enterprise but in South Africa this didn’t happen until there was world pressure,� explained Masekela, who authored his autobiography “Still Grazing� and two novels.

After Apartheid, a Reconciliation Commission was established wherein Black South Africans forgave White South Africans. “Yes, there was a disposition of reconciliation.  We are the first nation to help free our oppressors.  We are interested in moving on with and improving the quality of our lives.  It is true Black South Africans forgave even though the White South Africans did not apologize.  I don’t think there has ever been a case anywhere in the world or anytime in history wherein the oppressor apologized for their oppression. The Chinese and Koreans haven’t gotten an apology from the Japanese.  I don’t think the Germans ever really expressed regret for WW2 nor have the British, French, Americans, or Portuguese apologized for slavery.  Unfortunately, white South Africans are no different.  It seems that human beings have a history of being nasty to each other,� said Masekela soberly.

“Though this will be the first time, I have appeared at City Center, Alvin Ailey who appeared there often, composed, and later debuted at City Center, a ballet entitled ‘Masekela Language,’ from a compilation of music that I recorded. However, I have performed at Carnegie Hall, Yankee Stadium, and Madison Square Garden� stated the South African artist who is best known for his work in the musical “Sarafina,� “Grazing in the Grass,� and the freedom anthem “Bring Back Nelson Mandela, Bring Him Back Home to Soweto.�

 “I own, with two partners, the only Black owned independently distributed South African record and entertainment company.  We are into films, management and various projects.  I am very involved in the development of young talent in South Africa.  In fact, the Sounds of South Africa concert is a fund raiser to enable us to help young South Africans of all hues to come and perform in the United States.  I am helping to create an independently owned African environment of entrepreneurship throughout Africa, with South Africa as the launching pad for this endeavor.  It is often surprising to me when artists who have drawn their resources and gained their success from the communities they come from completely forget their origins. The people that mentored me like Miriam Makeba, Dizzy Gillespie, Harry Belafonte, Louie Armstrong, and Miles Davis always remembered the people from whence they came.  They used their celebrity to bring attention to the plight of their communities.  I think that if you don’t do that, then you need your brain examined,� stated Masekela emphatically.

After 350 years of war against colonial occupation by the Dutch, British, and International business, South Africa today is in flux.  “If we are lucky, Black South Africans have about 1% of any control in the economy of South Africa.  Never in the history of humanity have people said, ‘Listen, we are sorry we made so much money off your backs for centuries.  Here’s $500 billion to show you how sorry we are.’  That is not going to happen. The government was so criminal we couldn’t feed the underlining turmoil in South Africa.  Then one day, the world woke up and Black South Africans found themselves standing in orderly fashion voting.  It was then we were dubbed a ‘miracle’ nation but that is not how life works,� said the pragmatic musician and businessman. 

“People who were prejudice yesterday don’t change overnight.  Even in America today, certain neighborhoods look bombed out. And, no one ever talks about the plight of Native Americans.  People by nature are not charitable.  The miracle of South Africa is that the oppressed people are more concerned with improving their lives than seeking revenge even though there are still racial attacks,� said Masekela.

A fighter against injustice, Masekela modestly stated:  “I played on Bob Marley’s first recording.  He was young and his music spoke of freedom, too.  There have been many who have spoken out against injustice:  Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Malcolm X.  Most of the world’s good people have been manipulated and their lives ended mysteriously, especially in the political field where most have been assassinated.  Sadly it happens because power doesn’t listen to reason.�

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