25/01/2018 17:22 SAST | Updated 25/01/2018 17:22 SAST

Bra Hugh Lived With A Rare Openness, Truth And Candour

He just loved us. And we loved him back.


A couple of years ago, I was on the programme "My Journey In Jazz", hosted by the impresario Nothemba Madumo on Metro FM. In response to a question regarding some of the music I had brought to the studio, to represent my journey in jazz, I stated that I was born in the lap of Duke Ellington, who was my parent's favourite jazz artist.

I should have added that soon thereafter, Hugh Masekela would join that pantheon of influence with his emblematic, "Grazing In The Grass", released around 1968 when I was about five years old. "Grazing In The Grass" had entered the Billboard charts and quickly inched up, becoming one of the biggest-selling records in the U.S. that year.

It would become a ubiquitous ballad and a luminous fixture of the 60s' counterculture revolution in the U.S. Many kids were conceived to this song, and Bra Hugh himself would get a lot of play from some of the finest women of that era – including the raunchy queen of funk, the inimitable Betty Mabry. She would later date and marry the jazz legend Miles Davis, and is credited with steering Miles into the funk and fusion revolution precipitated by "Bitches Brew".

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Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis w. his singer wife Betty Mabry (L) & an unident. woman arriving at the funeral of rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix.

Bra Hugh and Miles shared more than Betty. He credits Miles for admonishing him not to play "American" jazz. He insisted that the texture and vibe that one gets in the evolving jazz groove – from swing to bebop; cool and hardbop to modal – reflected the lived experience of African-Americans, and thus an outsider to that culture would always sound like a poor mimic.

He implored Bra Hugh to find his own authentic voice. It would be this insistence on authenticity that would define Bra Hugh's life. He lived with such rare openness, truth and candour. This infused his music with its raw edge and power.

Come to think of it, no one has ever tried to cover "Stimela" or any of Bra Hugh's coruscating gems. They are simply inimitable, as they sprang from a deep well inside him that defied and resisted imitation.

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South African International Legendary Musician Hugh Masekela

This was the authenticity that would define his later life, as a crusader for heritage, the bane of fake hair and all manner of inauthenticity. He could be hurtful in this crusade for authenticity. But then again, who has ever accused our big bro of being namby-pamby?

It was another dimension of Bra Hugh's persona that had catapulted him, as a newly arrived denizen of New York City, into that taxi ride with Miles Davis during which this advice was furnished - his entrepreneurial flair. This quality saw him consistently move with the times, as he teamed up with younger musicians to regularly produce new music – even as his age cohort stagnated, choked and croaked in the swirl of a debilitating time warp.

Mfundi Vundla, the creator of the soap opera "Generations", has marvelled incredulously at this ability: "I mean, how do you get yourself into a taxi with the scowling and forbidding Miles Davis - the prince of darkness - and the biggest-selling jazz artist to date, as an arriviste from Africa, and end up having a life-changing conversation?"

In his quest and insistence on authenticity, he bequeathed us the gift of individuation and idiosyncrasy.

This was the derring-do of a self-assured hipster. He bristled with self-confidence and radiated an incandescent subversive spirit. This quintessential "Joburg style" must have resonated with Miles, another subversive. This sensibility imbued Bra Hugh's life, music and language, and was evident in his love for Tsotsitaal, U.S. slang, and in his intoxicating dance moves.

And he was oh, such an authentic South African. He had a searing fealty to his country, culture and its people. He just loved us. And we loved him back. He probably spoke all eleven of our official languages, a function of growing up in a mining town in Witbank, where all the national and ethnic groups of the subregion congregated to seek employment, and would decamp to his grandmother's shebeen for libations and a pow-wow.

His most famous song, "Stimela", is a tale of the trials and tribulations of the migrant worker – a powerful sociological examination of the condition of the oppressed in this country. It would furnish him with the empathy he would always have for the truly downtrodden, and a concomitant hatred for racial injustice, tribalism and xenophobia.

And in his quest and insistence on authenticity, he bequeathed us the gift of individuation and idiosyncrasy. He never moved with the herd, which is why in spite of his closeness to such liberation icons as Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela, and his agitation for our liberation, he never joined a political party.

Political parties are perforce tyrannical, encapsulated in the "disciplined and loyal member" trope, and the anachronistic "democratic centralism" – they frown at the kind of individualism that Bra Hugh as an artist and a free being prized above all.

He was all about truth and authenticity, which is usually a casualty of "joining'' and "belonging", as evinced by the mind-numbing defence of Jacob Zuma's treachery by his party. Bra Hugh was too free a human being to be a "joiner". He did not go along to get along. He marched to his own drum and enchanted us with this fidelity to truth and freedom.

We witnessed him battle and conquer the demons of substance abuse that are a bane of the artistic community with reverberating courage, as he would the cancer that ultimately claimed his life. In his victory over substance abuse, he vindicated the heroic essence of the South African persona. We are a valiant and courageous folk.

It boggles the mind for the Zupta machinery to have imagined it could purloin our patrimony with impunity. A patrimony purchased with our blood, sweat and tears. I opined some time ago that those who engage in the malign subversion of Madiba's republic can't but meet their comeuppance in the fullness of time.

That is the law of karma. And karma, as we should know, is inescapable.

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Hugh Masekela is a world-renowned flugelhornist, trumpeter, bandleader, composer, singer during the DStv Mzansi Viewers Choice Awards (DStvMVCA) event at the Sandton Convention Centre on August 26, 2017 in Sandton.

Karmic retribution is still unfolding for these merchants of greed, desecration and brigandage, but its denouement has already been telegraphed – there will be justice.

Bra Hugh was arguably the best-known South African after Madiba globally – and he wore this mantle of "ambassador" for our people with panache, style and élan.

He lamented the dumbing-down of the South African persona. He recently quipped that in the past, in the pubs of London, you would literally be garlanded and feted with a free pint, just for being a black South African.

We can truly honour Bra Hugh, the big brother who loved us so, by remaining faithful to the ideal of a truly free and just polity.

But increasingly, with Zuma's misrule and the concomitant heist of our state by some funky dudes from Uttar Pradesh, we had become figures of derision and scorn.

But we have fought back and are arguably on the cusp of a seismic breakthrough if current trends hold. I have no doubt that they will. Otherwise, the law of karma would be an arse.

We can truly honour Bra Hugh, the big brother who loved us so, by remaining faithful to the ideal of a truly free and just polity. A polity free of the scourge of mindless genuflection to the powerful, as power is by its nature ephemeral.

The truth should be our only lodestar.


Oyama Mabandla is a businessman