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Hugh Masekela, BraHugh as he was respectfully known, was diagnosed with cancer in 2008. He suffered for many years and died in 2018 at the age of 78.

Trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana said,

The first step to teaching children is to teach them in their mother tongue. A child is more of value when they come to the world with their mother tongue and the language of the world. We will be much more valuable musicians as a South African and a jazz musician of the world.

To play in King Kong was an incredible opportunity and sit in the same seat as Bra Hugh and walk in one of his first footsteps in being a professional musician. When I was asked to be a part of the show I was reluctant because it was a theatre show meaning I reject a lot of other gigs. But what attracted me was Bra Todd Matshikisa being a product of the marabi period. I am interested in studying marabi in that it is the foundation of African jazz. There are small opportunities play solo extracts in the theatre show, behind the dialogue. Every night I was given an opportunity to be true to the language. And I was the orchestrator of the musical, specifically the big band parts where I would readapt the original score.

His phrasing was to play some sort of drum rhythm: two drums playing low and high pitches. He was speaking the rhythm and emulating the drums in his improvisation. He plays a lot of rhythm. He used to teach in Durban and he had a very unique way of tongueing which is not considered in the western approach as the correct way, but it is very true to what South African jazz requires from its musicians to speak the language. His tongue was fast sharp and strongly articulate. Students said his tongueing was incredible and incredibly fast. And it comes to trying to emulate the drums and the tongue accentuates that part of the language.

Why the flugelhorn? It is easier to articulate fast phrases on the trumpet than the flugelhorn. No one in the world plays the flugelhorn like him. He had that thing, a consistency to speak in the language and make it work in the flugelhorn. It is a warm sound and a mellow sound and he made it both – he made it speak with articulating fast phrases. And at his late age to still play the way he played. As a trumpet player I know how difficult it is to not play the trumpet for a couple of days and then come back to it and play it as well as you played it the last night. At his age to play the instrument as he did and even dance, he was incredible fit. He had been playing all his life – maybe that is why.

He was a soldier. That is why he ran such a long and consistent career.

The longest standing member and is his musical family is Bra Fana Zulu. I played with his previous pianist Randel Scheepers in Ray Phiri's band and the way he speaks of Bra Hugh – he was a teacher and he was adamant in being strict about consistency and staying true to the music. African music in general is repetitive – it is repeated pattern that we do melodies and improvisation and variations on top. The consistency of playing a pattern repeated for however long – because sometimes you see the band playing and Bra Hugh walks on and speaks to the crowd – they could play the same phrase for 20 minutes and he was strict, “Don't go anywhere else!” As jazz musicians we get bored quickly. After you have played a phrase you want to play other things and apparently he would get really upset with people trying to be too experimental. He was true to listening and doing it properly and maintaining the energy throughout whilst doing it. It is very difficult to do that. Imagine how you internalise the music when you are able to do that. And that is the aim.

To keep people dancing goes back to the marabi days and playing in the clubs for many hours – you needed to be consistent in the tempo that you played so people could dance all night. His roots are of that era, so he knows it is important to do that. He was a musician as well as an entertainer which sometimes we miss. We see the entertainment and sometimes miss the point because the musician is entertaining and getting a lot of reception from the crowd. And we lose sight of his musicianship because of that. But did you hear the consistency of his tone? Imagine combining that level of entertainment with that musicianship? And did you know he is going to another gig after this. He is only going to sleep 4 hours and play the next gig? And do you know he has played ten other gigs doing the same thing?

Miles Davis was also deeper. He was spiritual in his approach to the music and how you play the note and the intention behind the note. Maybe he felt that there was intention lost when he was playing other styles of music. Maybe he played one South African song at that set and he felt the intensity.

Trumpeter Etuk Ubong said,

Hugh Masekela is a masterpiece that was gifted to Africa. He has influenced a lot of people and me in particular about music, appreciating our culture and standing for the life of the black people, reflecting the African culture to the world to make it an equal standard and support Africa as a good continent.

I met him first at the jazz festival and he was making us laugh cracking jokes. I met him again when I was studying at UCT. I got his phone number and called him. He told me “What is there to create? We have all played all the music.” It was an encouraging conversation to want to do more. I said to myself my music has a strong message and represents the struggle of humanity.

Hugh Masekela rescued me from the airport from the hands of the police. He got me bailed on the phone when I told the policeman at the airport that I am friends with Hugh Masekela. They didn't allow me to go through the scanning machine with my trumpet valve oil and that became an issue for me, I came to South Africa with this valve oil so how come you don't want to let me leave with the valve oil. So they arrested me and called some offices and took me away. I said do you know Hugh Masekela he travels with this valve oil also and he travels all around the world. So he spoke to them on the phone. I got to the station at the airport and he spoke to the boss. Hugh Masekela told me that these people are not people you should argue with because they might stop you from travelling or come to South Africa. And that was the last time I saw Hugh. I heard he was sick and cancer and I was thinking of calling him one of these days to check up on him.

At the Artscape youth jazz festival in Cape Town 2016 we played a tune as tribute to him and took an improvisation which reflected his style of playing. There has been a huge influence; tongeuing technique, phrasing, style of playing and approach. I transcribed his trumpet solos in the early years of learning to play jazz music because I was exposed to his music like Stimela.

His flugelhorn playing I prefer because it has that distinct style other than the trumpet. When you find Hugh Masekela playing standards you can hear that this is Hugh Masekela. He is one of those unique horn players who has got that distinct sound. And you hear the influence of South Africa. And you always hear South African in his lines.

Hugh Masekela was one of the few. When Fela came back from England he was still playing jazz. Hugh Masekela told Fela he should find his own space and that there is a lot to explore from Nigerian music and he should create something unique. And that was one of the things that really inspired Fela to make afrobeat music. And that is why he went to Ghana and started playing Highlife music at the AfroSpot.


Interview Hugh Masekela (published in Volume One of Story of SA Jazz)

Hugh was part of the great King Kong cast. We asked him about King Kong the musical which was a topical subject at the time as John Matshikiza was in the process of restaging the musical. Hugh said backstage at the Galaxy venue in Rylands 2000:

It was a ground-breaking musical, very powerful. Jonas and I were the copiests and Kippie was one of the arrangers. It was like an assembly line, with the arrangers in one room, and us in another. They would churn out the arrangements and bring the orchestration to me and Jonas and we'd do the parts, and then rehearse it with a cast of seventy. It was star studded, with some of the prettiest women I've seen in my life: a wonderful experience!

The people, he says, are his main inspiration. And the world, being alive. But it's really about the ordinary people. And that's reflected in the band. Speaking about his current musical band, Hugh said:

The music relates to who the people really are, to the audiences, they enjoy it because we're a country in search of itself. We're obsessed with letting people have the confidence for it to be okay to be South African, 'cause it's great to be South African and we got the music. We're sort of a plebby group, but we're slowly roping in the Marie Antoinette's. They're also finding out that they are victims of the isolation. We're obsessed with bringing back the past with a now vibe.

Which means incorporating new sounds like kwaito?

Yeah, yeah kwaito. When we did mbaqanga in the '50s they said the same thing about it, ‘aagghh township music, it's for drunkards, and loose people who drink and take drugs, the chicks are loose, fucken rubbernecks', and people said ‘don't be a muso because you'll become a drunk', and when Brenda Fassie and Chico and them came out they were condemned the same way, ‘aagghh it's bubble gum'. But 5 years from now kwaito will be like our daily bread, 'cause it's culture from the townships, the majority of the population of this country are the youth, and that's their music.

Township music has always had a bad name. It's for drunkards, and loose people who drink and take drugs. I think that is bullshit.

I think of myself as just playing music. You know I grew up in school choirs, in church, I went to a classical conservatory, there's nothing I haven't played, so I think that it's bullshit about people being jazz, and kwaito and this and that. It's like when you see a pretty girl you don't say she's Indian, you just say, 'Whoa what a pretty babe', what a fox, you know what I mean. Music is either good or bad, the rest is bullshit.

In talking to Hugh Masekela, we also discovered that apart from people, life, the world and women, his music is also assisted by sushi!

I love sushi. You can eat it at midnight and not get nightmares. When I came out of rehab I had a major appetite. I had a major appetite before, so now I'm working on just eating nutritional food. Japanese food is expensive, but there isn't a sliver of fat anywhere, and I think we must shift ourselves in that direction.

When I left this country, people used to walk a lot, they were much more slender and much healthier looking, but now people don't walk and there's so much fast food, takeaways.

Hugh is revelling more than ever before in being South African and playing to South African audiences.

Yeah, I love South Africa, I'm a pig in mud. I was very homesick for 32 years, and I'm just knocked out to be home.




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