Just because South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela is generous enough to give more than an hour of his time for a phone interview from Johannesburg doesn't mean he makes it easy. Sure, he's friendly, but he's also feisty, and that may be one of the keys to his lifelong success.
In 1954, when St. Peters Secondary School Chaplain Trevor Huddleston asked what, pray tell, it would take to stop then-14-year-old Masekela from continuing his naughty boarding-school antics, the aspiring artist told him, "Get me a trumpet and I won't bother anyone anymore." But ask Masekela what kind of antics he'd been up to and he responds dryly: "I was a restless child. Don't children in your country participate in mischief?"
It's an abrasive shift, but he's guiding us toward what he considers the most important angle of the story — the trumpet. Masekela's request quickly led other students to beg for instruments, and together they formed the nation's first youth orchestra, the Huddleston Jazz Band. While the kids were out playing township dancehalls, Huddleston, also an outspoken anti-apartheid activist, was exiled from South Africa, ultimately seeking refuge in England. Along the way, he made a key stopover in the United States, where some brothers introduced him to Louis Armstrong. The jazz legend was so inspired by the youths' gumption that he sent them a trumpet, and the media attention generated by the gift laid the foundation to a future bridge for Masekela's transnational music education.
During the late 1950s, Masekela went on to tour South Africa with a number of jazz ensembles, and in 1959, he and his band, Jazz Epistle Verse 1, became the first African group to record an LP. But that triumph was quickly tainted. In 1960, amid a massive crackdown on anti-apartheid activists that resulted in bloody riots and a ban on gatherings of more than ten people, Huddleston got Masekela to England and helped him enroll at London's Guildhall School of Music.
"I planned to return and teach in South Africa when I completed my studies," Masekela says. "When I was ready to, it was impossible to reaccess South Africa, because the situation had deteriorated and my overseas associations would have pointed me straight to prison."
Instead, he headed to the United States, and shortly thereafter, Masekela's colleague and future wife, Miriam Makeba, who was already enjoying American stardom alongside Harry Belafonte after her own run at Guildhall, assisted in Masekela's acceptance into New York's Manhattan School of Music. Once there, Masekela formed a quartet and got a gig at the Village Gate. It didn't take long before his first live album, The Americanization of Ooga-Booga, was burning up the streets of Harlem and beyond.
"I always knew I wanted to excel in what I was doing, and I knew it wasn't going to end in South Africa," Masekela says. But he quickly acknowledges the vital assistance of Makeba, who got him to record four tracks for her album, The Many Voices of Miriam Makeba, produced by Belafonte in 1967.
Harlem at the time was booming with the new cosmopolitan mix of jazz and the newly popular salsa craze, and Masekela was now rubbing shoulders with all the era's greatest tastemakers, from members of the Fania All Stars to his longtime idol and supporter Louis Armstrong.
"Dizzy Gillespie, Harry Belafonte, Miles Davis, everybody was telling me, if you can infuse that, you'll probably come up with your own hybrid," Masekela says. "That's what happened, and I became known further than I ever hoped for."
By the late 1960s, Masekela had sold millions of copies of the pop-jazz tune "Up Up and Away" and his own "Grazing in the Grass," both recorded on Chissa Records, an independent label he founded with Manhattan School of Music classmate Stewart Levine. As the years went on, he toured the world with jazz, folk, and Afro-pop ensembles, gave guest appearances on albums by the Byrds and Paul Simon, even joined Simon's Graceland tour.
The 1970s served as a time of cultural exploration closer to home. He lived for extended periods in Guinea, Liberia, Ghana, and Nigeria, learning from and helping to record local artists. During the early 1980s, he helped to found the Botswana International School of Music, as well as a mobile recording studio. In 1986, alleged political activities sent him back into exile in England, where he helped to write the music for the Broadway play Sarafina! and his own 1987 tribute to Nelson Mandela, the hit single "Bring Him Back Home."
Through it all, his compositions and performances ran the gamut from jazz, R&B, and funk to South African genres like mbaqanga.
"I gave myself a musical pilgrimage and was influenced by everything. I'm just a lump sum of everything I've heard," he says. But the positive vibes of his music don't necessarily reverberate in his worldview, especially when it comes to discussion of his native South Africa, to which he returned upon Mandela's release in 1990.
"I don't think my people have gotten anywhere," he says, a bit miffed. "I don't think the vote means anything, nor [the lack of] police harassment. If you don't have economic independence, then there hasn't been any change. We don't own the economy. We own 5 percent of the land and 2 percent of the economy."
One place Masekela's particularly aware of that reality is in the music industry, which is partly why he opted to steer away from South Africa's multinational affiliates like EMI, GMB, and Universal and focus on his own Chissa Productions. "It wasn't so much of a political statement as it was not wanting to be part of the Western industrial system," he says. "There's no big mission except we give artists much better care." At Chissa, Masekela helps artists learn, develop, and record in their own style, and the profits are split 50/50. "They're the masters of their own talents," he says. Masekela's also busy exploring ways to bolster a vibrant African film industry that would be created by and for Africans but with a kind of universal appeal.
His projects are signs of at least some social progress, and they parallel strides in Masekela's personal life. This month marks his tenth anniversary of sobriety. "I'm not really that self-analytical, but when I was an alcoholic and drug abuser, I wasn't working at 100 percent of my capability," he says.
Adds the trumpeter, who's also become an advocate for HIV and drug prevention: "Since then, I'm more passionate. I'm at peace with myself and with everybody else, and I just wish that the rest of the people I come from had as enjoyable and privileged a life as I have."
Don't call Masekela a hero; he's stubborn about taking credit. "I don't consider myself an activist. In fact, I consider it abnormal for people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds to not bring the plight of their people to the forefront."
Though he's most recently been experimenting with traditional South African sounds, he says concertgoers at Wednesday's performance should expect an eclectic mix from his ten-piece band. "We're going to do proven favorites from my old repertoire and a cross section of South African music," he says. "We're rehearsing a tight show."
When New Times finally thanks him for his time and contribution to the world of music, he gets feisty again.
"It's not my music. I found it here. My life is about paying back what was given to me, and the interest is so high, I'll never be able to pay it back in full."