Hugh Masekela was a musician and a showman, a jazz trumpeter and an inspired bandleader. He was both composer and campaigner, and he leaves a legacy much greater than his more than 40 albums and accolades that range from Grammy nominations to honorary doctorates.
Many South Africans remember him as an elder statesman of arts and culture – "the grandfather of South African jazz" – who returned to this country in 1991 after Nelson Mandela was released.
But Masekela's life – and the energy with which he lived it – was propelled by turmoil and fuelled by primal appetites that would have shocked his health-inspector father and social-worker mother. His grandmother, who ran a miners' shebeen, might have understood better.
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
'Don't go lose it, baby...'
Masekela frequently stated that he was lucky that alcohol and drug abuse didn't kill him, and it took him decades to tame those beasts. But music was always paramount.
When he escaped apartheid South Africa in 1960, his spiritual compass was aimed at the bebop capital of New York, and adventures that included playing and partying with Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone – and long conversations with civil-rights leader Malcolm X.
He was on an FBI watch-list for his anti-apartheid campaigning alongside Harry Belafonte. And that was all before he reinvented himself alongside Fela "Black President" Kuti as part of the Afrobeat revolution, reinvented himself again with The Union Of South Africa (arguably South Africa's best crossover jazz outfit ever), and found himself smuggling contraband in Liberia and Ghana.
Bra Hugh once said that when he left his homeland, his mother cried tears of joy because she knew her son would have been killed if he'd stayed. "I was born not to take sh*t from anybody," he once told me. "That would have meant a short life in this place – South Africa before freedom."
I've interviewed Bra Hugh many times -- he once even had his road manager drive him to my Bo-Kaap flat because I'd had an eye operation and couldn't drive to meet them. All for an interview about his autobiography and an accompanying "Best of" CD that really needed no help to sell.
It was a tiny example of how the man was tireless – even relentless – in pursuit of sharing his music and messages. "Take the energy that a junkie once had and do something useful with it," he told me and his manager sitting at my threadbare breakfast table. Yes: telling both of us. Because when Bra Hugh talked, it was more like he was holding court.
'Everything here is so real, you can feel it.
Can you dig it, baby...'
Two of my stand-out memories of the jazz giant come from his intersection with the world of rock 'n' roll. When "Rolling Stone" magazine launched in South Africa, there was much speculation about who the first cover would be. Of course, it was Bra Hugh.
This is the man who co-invented "World Music", helped Paul Simon tour "Graceland", jammed with Bob Marley, started playing music on a trumpet donated by Louis Armstrong and recorded "TechnoBush" in a caravan. Oh – and wooed, married, then divorced that other South African icon, Miriam Makeba. You don't get more rock 'n' roll than that.
I had the curious privilege of introducing him to a crowd of 20,000 at the Oppikoppi festival main stage in 2014. Dust, brandy, thorns and fans wearing T-shirts for other headliners like Wolfmother, Cat Power and Springbok Nude Girls!
I made a joke to him about the Monterey Pop Festival – where in 1967, he played alongside Janis Joplin and The Who – and he just smiled and said, "We will play the music that we will play." It didn't faze the born showman one tiny bit. He clocked that most different of crowds in a heartbeat, and had them in the palm of his hand within a few bars.
Soon, the platinum belt outside the Limpopo mining town of Northam rocked to the strains of a Masekela anthem: "Stimela".
'When they are digging and drilling that shiny mighty evasive stone //
A pushing, a pumping, a crying and steaming and a chugging // Choo Choo! //
They curse the coal train...'
Backstage, a veteran artist booker and stage manager shared his favourite Hugh Masekela memory. A Mamelodi concert was running late by almost four hours and the artists were being respectfully requested to shorten their sets to gain back time.
Bra Hugh and his manager nodded agreement before taking the stage. As always in his South African shows since his return, the crowd were lapping it up. "We always try to make people dance," Masekela once said. "Even in China and Japan where they don't usually do that – we get them upright. In South Africa, you don't need to ask."
The amended cut-off time arrived and the stage manager caught Bra Hugh's eye and indicated cut-off. Bra Hugh nodded, smiled his impish smile, gestured with a head-nod to the crowd that was going wild, mouthed just two words, "No way", and smiled again.
Stage managers are a hardened breed; born to working hard while everyone around them is partying, and forged in the fires of dealing with unruly fans and equally unruly stars. Their stage is theirs; they don't take "No" for an answer on it. Except this time.
He looked at the crowd; he looked at the man entrancing them with his cornet, and turned to his assistant to work out other ways to win back the time.
Oh.. and the two words that Masekela had mouthed weren't really "no" and "way".
'We had a night time of ecstasy //
We woke up to the roar of the lion'
It is hard to imagine South Africa's musical landscape without Hugh Masekela. Yes, we have lost other legends – like Miriam Makeba, Ray Phiri, and Winston "Mankunku" Ngozi.
But Masekela was so active as a musician – he launched an international tour on his 70th birthday, playing with a backing trio less than half his age, and was booked for shows until just months ago – and as an outspoken campaigner – first against alcohol and drug abuse and more recently raising awareness about the prostate cancer that caused his death – that it is hard to imagine the trumpet silenced, those lyrics only every being sung by someone else, and that gravelly, throaty laugh and those mischievous eyes not daring you and challenging the world.
Hugh Ramapolo Masekela – "Bra Hugh" to literally hundreds of thousands of fans... the way you were "possessed and obsessed", as you often said, with the music, gave South African and the world some of its finest African-born and jazz-inspired tunes and anthems.
But it is from the way that you lived life on your own terms – always seeking and always caring, and coming back from the brink more than once – that we can all learn. In our collective hearts, you will always be still grazing.
Thank you for the music. I hope the great gig in the sky is ready for what's about to hit them...
* Disclaimer - This blog has been edited post-publication to remove a sentence about Masekela's fellow Jazz Epistles member, Jonas Gwangwa, which inaccurately stated that he had passed on.