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Africa Unite

Trained in jazz trumpet since he was 14, Hugh Masekela was one of the first African musicians to make an impression on American ears. Masekela was born in South Africa in 1939 and came to the States in 1961 to escape apartheid, landing in New York and absorbing as much jazz, funk, and rock music as he could. All along, he retained a strong connection to his African roots, which showed prominently in his 1968 song "Grazing in the Grass," an international hit that sold more than 4 million copies worldwide.

Masekela also founded one of the first African-oriented record labels, Chisa, in Los Angeles in 1966. Shuttling between New York, L.A., and South Africa, he befriended Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti and became a mentor to numerous African bands, producing albums and shepherding young talent around the world for the next several decades. After contributing heavily to Paul Simon's Graceland, he's been recognized today as an ambassador of African music of all kinds.

Released last month, The Chisa Years, 1965-1970 (Rare and Unreleased) compiles a slew of Masekela-produced tracks from his label. He spoke to New Times while driving from Princeton, New Jersey — where he had just finished a two-day artist-in-residency program — to New York to prepare for his upcoming U.S. tour.

New Times: Over the past several years, there's been a major surge in interest in African music thanks to DJ and dance-music culture.

Masekela: I think the greatest thing that happened for the music world about DJs is that they don't search in a categorical fashion. They just go for music that moves them. And I think that's great, because they're bringing an appreciation for dance from other cultures and help whittle away people's prejudices about other ethnic groups. They just sort of slice through that whole obstruction and take music from wherever it is. They're a great gateway of the necessary familiarization of cultures to each other through music, which is a language which doesn't need translation. And I think it's true then that an album like The Chisa Years is being appreciated because it opens listeners' ears to almost anything. It's a great adventure for the ears.

Afrobeat is also becoming more recognized here. You had a close relationship to its originator, Fela Kuti.

Well, Fela introduced me. I came from South Africa, but I'd never been to Africa; Fela opened that door for me and invited me to Nigeria to be his guest. We had been looking for each other for 12 years when he was in school in England and I was in school in the States. Our careers were building, but people were telling us about each other. Finally in '72, as I was preparing to go to Africa on a musical pilgrimage, I wrote to him, and he invited me to come and be a guest in his band and tour West Africa. I figured somewhere along the lines, I would meet some African musicians to play with, because that's what I was looking for. And in Ghana, the band that opened for him is the one I decided to stay with on the first leg of the tour. He said, "Yeah, I knew you'd love this band." And so I stayed with him and made a whole record with them and came to the States with them and actually became a Ghanaian citizen through them and got married to a Ghanaian woman and spent a lot of time in Ghana.

You were one of the first African musicians to have a huge hit in the U.S., with "Grazing in the Grass."

Well, Miriam Makeba [whom Masekela later married and divorced] had one the year before with "Pata Pata." That was gigantic; it went to number two on the charts. Many people recorded it — even Mongo Santamaria had a hit with it. But "Grazing in the Grass" was really huge and has gone around a few times; it's a very popular song. And after that, Manu Dibango came out with "Soul Makossa" a few years later; he had a big record. From time to time, we show up, but those are the only three that I remember.

How is it living in South Africa again?

I live in Johannesburg for the last 15 years. It's great. You have to contend and live and be part of the initiatives to reverse the damage that was done by apartheid. It doesn't take many generations; people often fail to talk about that. Other than that, it's wonderful for everybody to be free, especially the ex-oppressors, the privileged people in those communities, because they really have the wherewithal economically to enjoy that freedom. But it's nice not to be harassed by police. But in our freedom euphoria, we tried to show the world we're not a police state anymore and countries can change overnight. And of course, when the country opened up, people came from all over the world to enjoy the liberated atmosphere there. The canvas sort of changed a lot, and that coupled with the fact that as many people as were poor, a little more were poor or poorer now that they were free. The solidarity groups that supported our liberation struggle, like any struggle, when it's over, they all walk away. There's no aftercare. So we end up in a state of flux now. But as far as the music industry is concerned, what will bring it to the attention of the world is that the industry has to be African-owned. That has everything to do with fashion, design, film, television, music, media, you know. And I think from there will come out a whole new unknown African potpourri that will project Africa for the first time from the continent.