Man with a horn gives voice to a people

03.10.11
Hugh Masekela
Vancouver Sun

By Denise Ryan

Legendary trumpeter Masekela is working hard to restore South Africa's heritage

When legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela lifts his horn on Saturday night at the Chan centre, he won't be playing his music.

Music doesn't belong to anyone. It's part of the world we are born into.

"I get a little confused when artists say 'my music,' " said Masekela in an interview from Los Angeles. "I don't think anybody comes into the world with music. You find it here. I found it here."

It's an important distinction for Masekela, who says his current obsession is heritage restoration in South Africa.

"It's very important, especially in South Africa where, with advertising, television and religion, South Africans were manipulated into thinking that their heritage was heathen, pagan, backward, primitive.

"It's very important at this time in our lifetime to restore in their heads that their heritage is magnificent."

It's a tough fight in an impoverished society, says Masekela, who first picked up a trumpet at 14 after seeing the Kirk Douglas film Young Man with a Horn.

Masekela was provided with a musical education by the legendary anti-apartheid campaigner, Father Trevor Huddleston.

Music and activism have been naturally entwined in his life ever since.

"People think I use music as a form of activism, but the truth is I come from a very activist society ... it would have been awkward if I had the world's attention and spoke about flowers."

Masekela's stop in Vancouver is part of a vigorous international touring schedule: He just performed with U2 in Johannesburg before 98,000 people.

Masekela became a household name internationally in 1968 with his pop-jazz hit Grazin' in the Grass and later toured with ex-wife Miriam Makeba and Paul Simon on Simon's Graceland tour, bringing the sounds of South Africa to a pop audience.

Masekela is now actively working to bring traditional South African music -the folk music of the townships, of protest, of ceremony -to a new generation in the country of his birth.

He recently collaborated with director James Ngcobo to create Songs of Migration, an awardwinning theatrical musical tribute to honour the songs of South African migrants.

"There was nothing in South Africa that did not have to do with song," he said. "A child's birth, a death ... our songs were emboldening, galvanizing, about courage, affirming our right to be, and to protest."

Songs of resistance are also songs of beauty, he explains. "That's one of the secrets of oppressed people's songs ... Oppressed people have all kinds of signs, underground moves, hidings, codes," he said.

"South Africa is probably the only country in human history where music was a major catalyst to drive the struggle," he said.

In 1987, his third decade in exile from South Africa, Masekela wrote Mandela (bring him back home), an international hit that became a galvanizing cry for the movement to free Nelson Mandela.

Masekela's music, and the role of the music in the struggle to free South Africa from apartheid was powerfully captured in the 2002 documentary Amandla, a Revolution in Four Part Harmony.

"In Amandla, there is a part where the white cop said, 'We were sitting on tanks and combat vehicles, but when thousands of people came singing, it put the fear of God in us. Even though we were armed to the teeth.'" South Africa is still not fully free, said Masekela.

"Now we are free from the yoke of oppression, from the police harassment, but no one has said to us, 'Here's the money'."

With the end of apartheid, said Masekela, "we freed our oppressors ... the South African economic machine could not do business in most countries with the cultural and economic boycott. But when we were freed, whose riches were multiplied? The powerful owners of the economy."

Masekela said he doesn't think anger helps, but music does.

"I have never been angry. I have always liked objecting to injustice."

His most important work now is to be active musically in his community, to restore, and to keep alive what has kept him vital through seven decades.

"I impart what I know," he said.

Amandla: A Revolution in Four Part Harmony will be showing tonight at Pacific Cinematheque, 1131 Howe St., 7 p.m.

On Friday at noon, Masekela will give a public talk about the role of the musician as cultural ambassador at UBC Robson Square, 800 Robson Street.