By David W. Wannop
21st Century Media News Service
Hugh Masekela has quite the presence even over the phone from Johannesburg. He quipped, “You don’t sound that old. Do you want to give me your secret of youth? Is it horizontal activities? That’s supposed to be very helpful.”
Although his latest tour is being touted as a salute to the late Nelson Mandela, and a commemoration of 50 years as an international music professional, Masekela does not reflect much upon the past or his four million selling hit “Grazing In The Grass” which hit the top of the charts in 1968. He didn’t want to talk about the Monterey International Pop Festival during which he received his first large American audience, sharing the stage with the likes of the Mommas and Pappas, Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane. The celebrity-swept “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between George Forman and Mohamed Ali also falls into that category of things he enjoyed at the time but were a long time ago. His focus is on current projects, music, and simply living life.
Masekela started playing piano around age four. By the time he was in his teens he was part of South Africa’s first youth jazz ensemble as organized by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston who was an activist against apartheid. Through Huddleston, Masekela came into possession of one of Louis Armstrong’s trumpets. As apartheid hardened it became necessary for Masekela to leave, first for London and then to New York’s Manhattan School of Music. It would take more than three decades before he could return home. The man who played on South Africa’s first jazz album had to become a citizen of the world.
Masekela described his adjustment to other nations. “Where we grew up we had a British education and we had to learn to go to every country in the world,” he said. “Climate, physical features, import, export — we were expected to have knowledge. By the time I got to New York I knew the Apollo Theater, Bird Land, and Central Park and Seventh Avenue. I was a little more educated about the United States than they were about us. That is the big problem of being from a (great country.) I think the Chinese have the same problem. I had no culture shock because I was a scholar; not just of music but of everything else.” It was a place and time wherein speaking five languages was natural for any Johannesburg child. So much was against Masekela and yet the expectations were high.
Masekela plays old favorites but not in a nostalgic or sentimental way. He focuses on the here and now. “Once I’ve done something I am done,” he said. “I don’t dwell. I do other things besides music such as theater and community work. I’m in property development and health. At the time it was great but it passed long ago. It’s called invisible hording. You hold on to memories and school photos and everything but it doesn’t bring anything. I am very happy to wake up in the morning at age seventy-five and be surprised and do things every day.
He did make a few points about the past however. “I was involved with all the anti-apartheid campaigns. I met Nelson Mandela when I was nine years old. He was a lawyer and activists. He was president of the African National Congress. He was my teacher in school. To me, he was a very funny, loveable, and mischievous old man with a fantastic sense of humor with a deep love of his people and children.”
Masekela produced early tracks for Bob Marley. “I played on Bob Marley’s first record. One of my best friends was Johnny Nash. I met Bob Marley as a teenager. I met nearly everybody in music but I’ve never been celebrity excited. Everyone is a human being and nobody can be without other people,” he said.
Masekela doesn’t claim to be an innovator or the pioneer of what is vaguely called World Music. “I didn’t start anything my friend,” he said. “I found it here. I learn it and I got noticed for working hard at it. I’m not one for positions and awards and all that. We come to play for the people. I make a living from music. I have to pay expenses and rates. If I didn’t play music I’d be standing on a corner saying please help. I live an uncomplicated life. The only thing I think about is how to make the next show good for the audience. The main duty is to make them ecstatic that they came and spent money on us.
Now that Apartheid is in the past, Masekela is working on environmental issues. “I am an environmentalist and I wish people would stop littering and destroying the world. In the end nature is going to win. There is no more parasitic thing than human beings, and sometimes when I wake up I wish I were a dog,” Masekela said.
IF YOU GO
performs at 8 p.m.
Monday, March 31
at Sellersville Theater,
24 W. Temple Ave.,
Tickets: $39.50, $55.
Info: (215) 257-5808 or