HUGH MASEKELA'S TOWNSHIP jive has rocked streets and stages from New York to Sao Paolo, yet to see him live at the ripe age of 70, one could be forgiven for thinking he seems to defy his years. In the body of an ageing man lives a young soul full of energy. The South African musician and activist, with whom a trumpet is synonymous, appears as vibrant as ever in the face of injustices committed against the African people.
When I ask the brass player why he still sings about mining, migration and the downtrodden, his answer is frank: "Because most of Africa's communities are exploited by foreign businesses. They use them as cheap labour, and they remain the poorest in the world." Masekela's power as a spokesperson is unwavering, testified to by Zeitgeist anthems like Bring Him Back Home. Sixteen years after the end of apartheid, he still has much to say on the "progress" of his homeland.
Does he think South Africa has lived up to the hopes he had when he returned from years in exile after the fall of apartheid? "So far, we can now vote and live anywhere we can afford," Masekela begins. "We have freedom from police harassment. However, we are still dirt-poor, we are still landless consumers in a white-owned economy and constantly live in fear of crime. We lack education and health care."
What makes Masekela--who also plays the cornet and the flugelhorn amidst a plethora of other brass and percussion instruments--such a great ambassador (a title he humbly resents) not only for South Africa but for Africa as a whole, is the number of cultures he is comfortable with and the influences he has absorbed.
"I studied classical music at Manhattan Conservatory of Music, lived through the golden age of jazz, soul and folk music. Lived in Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria, Congo and spent a lot of time in Jamaica. I absorbed all the cultures like a sponge," he says. The drops from that sponge explain Masekela's eclectic jazz rhythms and growls. The train reappears in much of Masekela's music as the curse of hearts and souls, as the train drags people away from the countryside to the city.
Masekela's slow, dragged-out exhalations in Coal Train water the eyes of audiences worldwide. Whether this intensity is derived from his own experience or transience or that of his homeland's, is hard to say.
However there is much more to Hugh Ramopolo Masekela. He was born in Witbank, a white settlement in the Mpumalanga region of South Africa, an industrial town famous for mining, energy and dams.
He received his first trumpet from the anti-apartheid activist and chaplain Trevor Huddleston, but he was coached through his first steps by the leader of the then Johannesburg "Native" Municipal Brass Band, Uncle Sauda.
At 15, Masekela showed an unusual aptitude for the instrument and it was not long before he began to mix music and politics. It was not until 1964 however that his first album, The Emancipation of Hugh Masekela, was offered to the world.
By the late 1950s, together with a certain Miriam Makeba, Masekela was touring South Africa in a sell-out musical production of King Kong. …