N O T E S F R O M T H E S O U T H
Still Jivin' and Shakin'
Peter Machen speaks to Hugh Masekela
Possibly because he has been around for so long, and been so commercially successful, there are many who would reduce Hugh Masekela to the status of a cultural cliche, someone who has given into their own Disneyfication.
But if you’ve witnessed a performance from Masekela recently, the untruth of this suggestion is self-evident. Masekela on stage is a man on fire, bringing to the air the true howl that US poet Alan Ginsberg used to describe the core of pain and joy as it is broadcast through the medium of jazz.
Of course, Masekela’s oeuvre extends well beyond jazz, but it has at its heart the effortless, discordant notes of truth from his trumpet that characterise the finest jazz musicians. And his rough, sweet compassionate voice is so much bigger than a single human being. Like fellow traveller Miriam Makeba, Masekela has lived in the slipstream of history’s river.
But while he is an icon of the 20th century, that doesn’t stop him blowing his mouth off about anything and everything. When I ask him later, if he would ever enter politics as a politician, he says that he’d be taken out almost instantly. People would not be too fond of his unpalatable truth if spoken from Parliament.
On his latest album, Time, for example, Masekela chastises those who have been privileged by the existence of apartheid for their uncharitable and ungenerous response to what has happened here since. Towards the end of our interview Masekela is talking about the white businesses who have benefited so much, first from apartheid, and then from liberation. “They didn’t even come and say ‘dankie kaffirs’.”
On a gentler note, I asked Masekela about one of the problems facing South African music – the fact that so many young black South African kids don’t want to be seen listening to what is viewed as their parents’ music. So people like Masekela, and also Busi Mhlongo and Madala Kunene, so alone on their own cutting edges, aren’t being listened to by the very people who most deserve their inheritance.
Hugh Masekela: There is something skewed about that. I think that it’s marketing’s fault. Because I studied music as a kid – and I’ve been a musician since I was five – I still view music as a child. And I think that thing has to do with South Africa and the international markets trying to get niche markets, and marketing situations for the youth where they have to wear certain clothes, and listen to certain music, do certain drugs and have a certain language.
Which I think is a bunch of poppycock. I think that music is either enjoyable to a person or not. People shouldn’t be prevented from listening to all kinds of music. I think it’s a snobbery and a kind of cultural racism to say ‘I don’t want to listen to this because it’s for kids’. I participate in the arts with all kinds of people. I have the most eclectic collection of music, which is international - because music is sound. And I don’t hear any children who are not teenagers yet say ‘I want to listen to music for children’.
I have a very big youth-and-child, right-down-to infant following. Because they like what I’m doing. Because I draw most of my material from the origins and traditions of this country. And it just sits naturally with everybody because they can identify with it. And I think that I transcend all that bullshit marketing.
I think people are misled, kids are misled. One of the worst things that is happening is that kids are the only people now targeted for listening to and buying music. They use their parent’s money and their parents are being shunted aside. But their parents have money to spend, so from the industry’s point of view, I think it’s a stupid, greedy move. I think that niche marketing brings out prejudices in people that wouldn’t otherwise happen.
Originally people used to listen to everything together. Music is a family thing - it should be enjoyed together as
a family. My kids listen to everything. And the stuff that they play for me that I don’t like, I just laugh and say ‘I can’t get with that’. But I don’t say ‘Hey! That’s music for kids’.
Peter Machen: So this niche marketing is really another kind of colonialism?
HM: It’s capitalism. It’s like fashion. One of the reasons why this country has such low cultural self-esteem is because we’ve only been sold foreign values and we are plagued about who we are. What we should really do is appreciate everything, including our own shit. And there’s a major, major market for who we are, but we’re not using it. So as a result, when people come to this country, they bypass the people and go straight to the animals. The problem is that we are imitations of other people.
PM: I think that’s what I meant by colonialism.
HM: Yeah. It’s also economic and financial brainwashing. That’s what it is really. But we can knock these doors down only if we look inward. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look outwards – but the reason why we’re so consumed so much by foreign culture is because we don’t have our own national mirror to compare it to.
PM: When you were in exile, in America and around Africa, did you ever worry that you might lose your roots, your sense of being South African.
HM: I couldn’t. Because I was steeped in it, I was brought up as a South African and I was, like, cooked in South African culture. And not only at home - I grew up in township jazz bands - I ran with township gangsters and township babes. And I also went to the country, and learned how to milk, and how to have cows, and how to praise my totem.
PM: What year did you leave South Africa?
HM: 1960. I was 20 years old.
PM: Did you think you would have to wait so long to return?
HM: When I graduated from Manhattan School of Music I was ready to come back. But I also had a loud mouth, as you can tell. And Harry Belafonte said to me, ‘You know, Mandela and all those people are already in jail. And with a mouth like yours - nobody even knows you - they’re going to kill your ass. So what you’d better try and do is make a name for yourself, and when you talk about your country, people will listen. And maybe in the long run, you might, as an old man, go back home’.
Of course I came back when I was 51. But we didn’t think we’d ever come back because of the draconian intransigence of the last government. We didn’t think they’d ever dream of giving up. But what was ironic or paradoxical was that when they did give up, it was because of the pressure of the international arts community that had been galvanised originally by people like Miriam Makeba. And the arts community pressured its countries all over the world, saying ‘we can’t be friendly with those people’.
And then there’s Paul Simon, who was mostly criticised in this country for playing with South African musicians and didn’t come and perform here. But we played to 10-million people with him all over the world. And those 10-million people had never heard about South Africa before that. And the show that we did - Graceland - was a very, very radically militant show.
To a great extent the arts has a lot to do with showing to the world what was happening in South Africa. And helped the world to turn around and see South Africa. And the Afrikaner hierarchy had to say ‘listen, we want to make a deal’ - a deal that was not that advantageous to the oppressed, but shit, things are not as bad as they were.
But of course, there’s never been a time in the history of the humanity when a privileged community said ‘listen, sorry that we made so much money off your backs - here’s 500 trillion to say we’re sorry.’ And I’m not expecting that to happen. But at least we’ve got somewhere to start from.
And I think, that maybe not in my generation, but I think that your generation will probably see the beginnings of the end of the old bullshit. But you know, people never change completely.