Hugh Masekela's 70th birthday concert

Hugh Masekela

By Tosin Sulaiman

It's not often that Hugh Masekela is left speechless during one of his own shows. But for one moment during his 70th birthday concert at London's Barbican Centre, the celebrated South African trumpeter appeared lost for words.

He had just finished performing the Zulu folk song ‘Nomathemba' with the London Symphony Orchestra and its 120-voice community choir, and was clearly impressed with the singers' exuberance and mastery of the language. "It's hard to believe that this choir is from all parts of London," he eventually said, delighting the audience with his attempt at a British accent.

During the rest of the show, Masekela, who turned 70 in April, had plenty to say. He began by paying tribute to the late South African singer Miriam Makeba, to whom he was briefly married, saying, "If it wasn't for her I wouldn't be standing here today."

As he is fond of doing in his concerts, he spoke of his country's struggle against apartheid and its peaceful transition to democracy, reminding the audience that his countrymen would be celebrating their 16th anniversary as a free nation later in the year.

He also thanked Londoners for the central role they played in resisting apartheid, from boycotting South African imports to organising protests at Trafalgar Square. "If it wasn't for your efforts, we would not have gotten to the goalposts as soon as we did," he said, although he quickly reassured the audience that he wasn't running for office.

Music shaped by politics

It's often hard to tell where Masekela's activism ends and where his music begins because his career as a musician has been shaped by his country's political struggles. He was given his first trumpet by the anti-apartheid priest Trevor Huddleston when he was 14 and later joined Abdullah Ibrahim's band, the Jazz Epistles. He left South Africa in 1960 at the age of 21 following the Sharpeville Massacre, in which 69 black protesters taking part in a demonstration against the country's pass laws were shot dead by police. Masekela went on to study at London's Guildhall School of Music, sponsored by the violinist Yehudi Menuhin and the British jazz musician John Dankworth. He later transferred to the Manhattan School of Music with the help of Harry Belafonte and Dizzy Gillespie, and it was in New York that he married Makeba, though they were only together for two years.

Masekela lived in various African countries, including Nigeria, Ghana and Liberia, in the 1970s, playing with Fela Kuti and touring with the Ghanaian band Hedzoleh Soundz. In the mid-1980s, he joined Paul Simon's Graceland tour and eventually returned to South Africa in 1990 after Nelson Mandela's release from prison. After 30 years in exile, he embarked on his first solo tour of the country.

Although politics forms the backdrop to many of Masekela's songs, the message of the concert at the Barbican, which was held on December 10, was that there was more to South Africa than conflict. The concert featured new arrangements of his work by the black British composer Jason Yarde, as well as Yarde's own compositions.

Beautiful songs

The first song Masekela played was ‘Grazing in the Grass,' his vibrant, feel good tune which topped the US charts in 1968 and sold 4 million copies worldwide. The arrangement for orchestra and flugelhorn had even the LSO's conductor, Francois-Xavier Roth, grooving as he waved his baton, prompting Masekela to remark, "He can sure get down."

‘Nomalizo,' a love song, came next. Introducing the piece, the first song he heard Makeba sing as a schoolboy, Masekela said, "People always know about South Africa as a place of protest. People imagine that we don't fall in love, but we actually do and we have beautiful love songs."

Another romantic ballad, ‘Lizzy,' which Masekela performed with two of his childhood friends, Sello Makhene and Sanza Loate, alternated between beautiful harmonies and a stirring flugelhorn solo by Masekela. Afterwards, he joked that the song, which was a hit in 1949, was responsible for the large number of babies born in South Africa in 1950.

A number of the pieces Masekela chose for the concert were songs of migration that told the story of South Africans who relocated to urban areas in the late 19th century following the discovery of minerals.

‘Ikhaya Lami,' a song about homesickness, was sung with joyful abandon by the choir, whose members nearly stole the show with their gospel-like fervour, even though they did not all move to the same beat.

The biggest hit of the night, however, was the classic ‘Stimela,' Masekela's tale of the coal trains that carried migrant workers from southern Africa to the mines of Johannesburg. Masekela once said he couldn't get away with a concert where he didn't play ‘Stimela' because everyone wanted to hear it, and in this concert he showed his ability to make the song sound new every time.

The contribution of the choir made the performance especially dramatic, while Masekela's singing and flugelhorn solos were as angry and passionate as ever. When he spoke of the young and old African men working "sixteen hours or more a day for almost no pay," or sitting "in their stinking, funky, filthy, flea-ridden barracks," the audience hung on every word.

An unforgettable performance

Whistles, hisses and screams also punctuated the song as Masekela effortlessly imitated the different sounds of the train, possibly becoming the world's first septuagenarian beatboxer. It was an unforgettable performance and at the end, the audience, who had been polite and reserved all evening, leapt to their feet.

For the last two songs, Masekela returned to the themes of struggle and protest, asking the audience to join him and the choir in singing the South African national anthem ‘Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika,' before ending the concert with ‘Mandela' (Bring Him Back Home). It's no surprise that Masekela still chooses to play the popular ode to the African National Congress leader nearly 20 years after Mandela's release. He has said in the past that he wrote the song in the 1980s after Mandela sent him a tape from prison to wish him luck. He remembers being moved to tears by the tape, which was smuggled to him on his birthday.

Masekela could not have chosen a better song to end the celebrations at the Barbican, but it must also have been a reminder of the many birthdays he had spent away from home.