Black to the Future with Hugh Masekela

Black to the Future
With Hugh Masekela

by Mark Ruffin

For many of Americans, Hugh Masekela was the first South African jazz musician ever heard on these shores. Millions of North Americans’ first recollection of the star trumpeter was the summer of 1969 when his “Grazing In The Grass,” was the number one song in the country. Ironically, while at the time he was one of the hottest international stars, that was the very reason his government wouldn’t let him come home to his native land.

Times have certainly changed South Africa in 30 years, as Nelson Mandela is set to retire this month as the first freely all-races elected president and the country’s black superstars such as Miriam Makeba, Jonathan Butler, Ladysmith Black Mombazo and Masekela can come and go through South Africa as they please. When he was in this country earlier this decade, Masekela said he was going home “to repair the musical infrastructure of South Africa.”

He returned to the U.S. last month with a resulting new band of talented African musicians and an appropriately titled new album- “Black To The Future.”

The record is a South African pop record layered with a heavy dose of urban jazz improvisation and world beats. Among the highlights on “Black To The Future” are the work throughout by a trio of women known as the Family Factory, a traditional African melody called “Strawberries,” performed with the children choir from the Mmabana Centre of Arts & Culture, and Masekela reworks his 70’s political disco classic “The Boy’s Doin’ It.” Masekela has been doing it in this country since the release of his first album “Trumpet Africaine,” in 1960. In addition to the aforementioned huge hits he’s had, Masekela has also found tremendous success on Broadway with his Tony-nominated musical “Sarafina,” and as a record executive with Chisa Records which he owned in the 70’s.. In fact, it was he who suggested the reformation and renaming of the label’s best known act, – the Crusaders.

For 40 years, he has been globetrotting with concerts all over the world and homes in New York, Los Angeles, Zimbabwe, London, where the album was recorded, and finally, after decades, in South Africa. But, for everywhere the man has been, he seems to have genuine good feelings, for the 30 years he spent here. It was the African-American experience, according to the award winning musician, that gave so many Black South Africans, including a young Masekela, inspiration in maintaining an urban lifestyle. He emphasized that Black Americans don’t realize how much they have influenced the world in not only music, but fashion, culture and even speech. “As far back as 1848, there was a group called Joe Brown and the Brothers Band,” Masekela commented. “They were a minstrel group that came to Cape Town on a ship from the States. And up this day in Cape Town, every year, at the end of the year, they have a minstrel carnival.

“The only role models for Africans who lived and survived in urban situations were African-American,” he continued. “There’s a great tie to African-American music, especially in the townships, and we were easily pulled towards it. “There were guys when I grew up who could tell you Charlie Parker’s bass player’s uncle’s girlfriend,” he said with an infectious laugh. “That’s how much they knew about everything. We’re the biggest jazz fiends in the world. Outside of the Japanese, South Africans are the most avid collectors of jazz music.”

In his four decades of playing and touring the U.S., the 59 year-old musician has gobbled up musical trends and have always managed to stay in tuned and thrive in every musical situation. He was a hit in the folk coffeehouses in the early 60’s and in the chic go-go’s afterwards.

He opened up for rock groups at the Fillmore East and West and many other famous rock venues in the late 60’s. This was before, and especially after, “Grazing In The Grass,” topped the charts. Masekela had always written protest music, so the movement caught up with him as the 60’s gave way to the 70’s.

“That was a great time,” he reflected. “It was the time of the anti-Vietnam War rallies, which I played. I think it was the first time that African-Americans were beginning to assert themselves as having some kind of African ancestry and background. So it was a time of a great connection.

“I think that’s why Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata,” and the music of Manu Dibango did so well,” he continued. “A contact had been made with Africa, not only by African-Americans, but by the Western community. A world that had been closed was opening up.”

As one of the most recognizable foes of the old apartheid era, Masekela certainly is excited about all the current musical expansion in South Africa. Now that the battle for freedom is over, the struggle for Masekla is not only reconciliation, but also a brighter musical future.