Sadly, the radio On Air Personality that announced the demise of Hugh Masekela, last week on my way home from work, pronounced his first name as “Hoff”, which first of all put me off, as another example of the decadence in the Nigerian news and media industry, that’s now become the dumping ground for just about anybody that can fake a British or American English “gutter” accent, while standing pronunciation, not only of local names but even of English names on their head; before the news sunk in, and the loss the music had world just experienced became glaring to me. The rest of the journey (as with what was left of the day) immediately became stale and flat, that for a moment I couldn’t tell whether my umbrage was because of the death of this great man, or that the one who brought it to my attention, dishonored him by mispronouncing his name.
The first time I saw Hugh Masekela perform (though I’d heard his songs severally on radio), was at that televized concert at Wembley Stadium in London in 1988, organized by notable musicians the world over to press for the release of Nelson Mandela who was then still in prison, on the occasion of his birthday. That collaboration with his former wife, Mariam Makeba for SOWETO BLUES became, not just in my estimation, but in that of many other people I’ve encountered, the highlight of that event, in spite of the fact that the show headlined some of the greatest acts of the day, and now, from South Africa (Ladysmith Black Mambazo) and the rest of the world (America’s Paul Simon for instance).
At a time it was profitable to use Nelson Mandela as subject of songs, if one wanted to be relevant in genres like Reggae, and a few others (for which also the eventual release of Mandela caused a dwindling in fortunes for such musicians), it would appear that Hugh Masekela with his songs, helped to raise awareness of the unfortunate situation of South African blacks under apartheid, while also lending some credibility to the cause for which Mandela was jailed worldwide, in ways in which the anti-apartheid coalition within (including the African National Congress, ANC considered a terrorist organization by the United States for instance) and outside of South Africa couldn’t because of how they were perceived by those who controlled prevalent thoughts in the world. Hence he was one of the few musicians who wasn’t negatively impacted by Mandela’s release, rather coming off that as one of the heroes of the “movement“.
Inasmuch as I’ve always considered myself eclectic, Jazz Music has never been my forte, and I listen only when I’m forced to, or when there’s an introduction of African flare into the mainstream jazz music, but it was different with Hugh Masekela. Before private broadcasting became a thing in Nigeria, we were forced to swallow everything that state-owned Nigerian Television Authority, NTA put on air, a Sunday show my father always tuned to by 11:30 to noon on NTA2 Channel 5 in the 1990s, played mainly African tunes, including Hugh Masekela, especially his Live shows where the music he made against apartheid in the days of the struggle were a common feature. Initially, I felt since he was African I should be encouraged to try and understand and love his brand of jazz, then I did actually fall in love, not just with the way he handled his instrument (like he did in STRAWBERRIES
while allowing the kids do the singing, while he manipulated the winds with his trumpet) but with his coarse (sometimes tending to baritone) voice he routinely employs to power his songs, like in THANAYI with the South African music flavour.
He remains a prime example of musicians (like the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti) who employ(ed) their gift for the propagation of ideals that minister to the betterment of their fellow man, and it is such you’ll find whose music never becomes outdated, or fade with the passage of time, because their songs appeal not just for our listening pleasure but also to and for our souls and humanity. I’m deeply saddened that this legend has passed on but glad that his legacy remains intact and untainted, even after the New South Africa he helped to birth remains disappointingly pedestrian, and a far cry from the hopes and aspirations of those who fought, cried, sang, suffered persecution, even died to see the end of the beast that was apartheid. To this jazz legend of our time, irrepressible trumpeter of our age, the ebullient Hugh Masekela, I say, Live Forever!