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Hugh Masekela - "South Africa holds a special place in my heart"

Trumpet player Hugh Masekela, born in 1939 is considered one of South Africa's most important pioneers in Jazz and worldmusic. Over many years, Masekela had to live in exile—in London, New York and in a number of African countries. For political and social commitment are as tightly connected for Hugh Masekela as a shirt with it's collar...

Hugh Masekela

In the mean time Hugh Masekela has relocated to South Africa and is more active as a trumpeter than ever. (This interview took place in 2009 at the "House Of Cultures" in Berlin during the festival "Live Lines #1" which celebrated Hugh Masekela.)

Carina Prange talked to Hugh Masekela for Jazzdimensions

Carina Prange: This whole year your birthday will be celebrated in South Africa. And you are travelling the world to take part in celebrations in honor of your person. Is it a satisfying feeling to turn 70 this way?

Hugh Masekela: I don't know. I don't think about it. People are making more of a fuss about it than me, I am not that self-conscious a person. I just go with nature. I do a lot of gardening, when I am home. I am a very sort of nature focused and oriented person. I don't think about age in the way people think about it.

There have been a lot of celebrations, but they were not arranged by me. But at the same time I am honored that people are affected that much that they take notice of my life. However, I was brought up not to pay too much attention to myself. I don't really think about it. I am just happy to have my health, to have lived there as long as I have lived. I am thankful for every day—and I don't take life for granted.

Hugh Masekela

Carina Prange: A look back: Your first trumpet was given to you by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston from St. Peters Secondary School. Do you still own it? And what sort of trumpet was it?

Hugh Masekela: Actually—and that's funny enough—it was one of Louis Armstrong's trumpets. He had been given that particular instrument here in Germany as a present and sent to us. That was because Father Huddleston once had met him and told him about that "band of young African boys" he had started in South Africa. And Louis Armstrong thought: "Well, I got to send them one of my horns!" And so he did send us that trumpet.

As I explained, we had started a band. After I got me a trumpet, four five months later, other boys went to Huddleston, because they had heard me playing songs. So he organized instruments for them, too, and we started the "Huddleston band".

When I got the Louis Armstrong trumpet, we had two other trumpet players in the band. So the better of the other trumpets moved to the second player, because his trumpet was not so good. And he passed his trumpet on to the third player. In fact the Louis Armstrong trumpet, that Father Huddleston got for us, was with the national museum for three years. Presently, I have it in a box at home. But I think about taking it back to the museum, because I think it's safer there.

Hugh Masekela

Carina Prange: You've said that the trumpet for you is only a "means of expression". Does that basically mean it is all the same what instrument or what music one plays as long as it is yourself you're expressing?

Hugh Masekela: Well, I mean, the instrument doesn't do anything for you. It doesn't play by itself. So you have to play and to play you have to learn it. It's an inanimate object. It's like flying a plane-if you want to be a good pilot, you have to fly a lot to understand it. So it's a mechanical relationship.

Well of course, people choose instruments, because they are affected by the sound of somebody playing it. Or they saw somebody play the hell out of it and said: "Wow, I'd like to play like that!" With me it was the sound of Harry James. I had heard trumpets before, but when I listened to Harry James playing trumpet on the soundtrack of "Young man with a horn"—the story of Bix Beiderbecke, with Kirk Douglas in the title role—and Harry James's trumpet in the soundtrack was just so beautiful… That was the sound, that got me in. I said, wow, I have got to learn that instrument so I can play like that. At that time I had already been playing the piano for seven years.

I think, I am just beginning to get near that sound. It took me a long time, because I quit practicing after a while. Only in the beginning, when I started at Manhattan School of music, I practiced a little. To my disadvantage I was a natural talent. I could make people happy without doing too many fancy things on the trumpet. So I didn't practice. Finally five years ago I took up Tai Chi. And that gave me the discipline to want to practice again. I once figured I was getting to an age, where I'd better show, that if I work hard, I can play a little better than I had been.

However, trumpets are inanimate objects. My trumpet, every three years I pass it on to somebody and get a new one. Because when you play it a lot, the pistons wear out mechanically, there is a lot of tension and friction. There's also oxidation from the liquid inside and as it is brass, it tarnishes easily. The more you play it, the more you have to clean it. Every two weeks or so. Despite that, they don't last very long. Especially fluegelhorns seem to be more vulnerable, more fragile. So after like three or four years I always feel that maybe I've overblown it.

But some people are able to keep their trumpets in order for very, very long time! Some instruments I give away and the people who receive them have one or two things fixed and keep them for a long time and love them. So something must be wrong with me! (laughs)

Hugh Masekela - "Phola"

Carina Prange: From 1960 to 1964 you studied classical trumpet at New York's Manhattan School of Music. What would you recommend young aspiring people who long to become musicians? Prefer a proper study at a highschool or learning by doing on the road?

Hugh Masekela: Well, I think, first you have to be honest with yourself. Because loving music doesn't mean you have the talent. You may be passionate about it, but if you don't have the natural talent, I don't think you have to go in… I used to feel sorry for a lot of people at music school, at conservatory, because they passed exams to get into the school. But when they played … Well, I knew most of them are gonna end up being school teachers. And some were doing it for that reason.

If you are honest with yourself, then you can judge if you should stay with it. Because if you don't have the natural talent and you go into music, it's gonna be very frustrating for you. It's like if you like running, but you can't run fast, you always gonna loose the races! It's that type of thing. Especially parents must be sure, because some parents like to push their children. But you should get a good assessment of whether the child is talented enough to prevail.

What's more, I don't think music is a profession that you choose. I think it chooses you. And if it doesn't choose you, you can't force yourself that way. But once you have the talent, talent is not enough. Then you have to work hard, you have to practice. You have to be passionate about music. It has a lot of obstacles. And even when you are ready, you know your instrument, then you have to turn professional. You have to learn the business and the industry, to protect yourself. Because the more talented you are the more vulnerable you are.

So it's all those things, practice is not enough, talent is not enough. You need passion and honesty. And you also need to be generous. Because if you are successful, it turns out that success is not easy. Very few people have been successful at success. So you have to learn that, that's a psychological thing. Most have us have gone through a phase of success that has almost destroyed us.

In conclusion I think, that you have to be careful not to take too seriously what people think, say or write about you. You have to follow your own muse, your own guide. And be humble. That is the biggest one. The one that is the most difficult at success is to be humble.

Hugh Masekela

Carina Prange: You always played music, that—to cite you—"closely reflected my life experience." Part of your messages regularly were political and social topics. Is music generally closely connected with the life and striving of the artist?

Hugh Masekela: Well I think, all people go into music with passion, especially the ones that become successful. But also if you are a sports person or an artist, it doesn't mean that you are not affected by a political administrative life that surrounds your life as everybody's life. In fact it is not just your life that is important.

How most dictatorships have succeeded is that like from the very beginning people were quiet. And to leave the dictators to go on is really more unsafe than saying something in the beginning.

What is important is: Are you living in a society where there is justice? And when you see injustice: Do you think that you should just keep quiet? How most dictatorships have succeeded is that like from the very beginning people were quiet. And to leave the dictators to go on is really more unsafe than saying something in the beginning. Because before dictatorships fall, they create a lot of destruction. So in other words when you keep quiet, you are actually part of the dictatorship.

And that's how I see life. Because my parents were community workers, my father was a health inspector, my mother was a social worker. All my family, my uncles and my aunts, all worked in the community. They were school teachers, they were nurses. And so I learned that it is better to help people who have what you don't have. Because you will always have it, but they are still striving for it. They might never get it. So if ever you can bring comfort, it is human to do that.

And I think, that very few musicians sing about their concerns over social injustice. Very few. That's unfortunate, because most musicians get their resources or their material from the communities or the societies. They don't invent them. They react on how people around them are living, and that's what songs are about. Whether they are love songs or what, you know? But maybe people who sing love songs shouldn't care about everything else, they should just think, everything is love, love, love…

However, I think, that if you come from a community, that is under oppression or injustice and you get your resources from them and if you are successful and you don't say anything about the quality of their life, then there is something psychologically wrong with you! I think that is the duty just of every person on earth to object to injustice. I'm convinced that if more of us did it together, injustice wouldn't exist.

But as human beings we are intimidated from birth. We are fashioned and designed by how we grow up and where we grow up. If we grow up in a racist or a fascist neighborhood or community, we come out like that. If we come from a military dictatorship kind of community, then we think, that's the only way around. Because it's drummed into us. And if we come from a fair and community minded and help oriented community, then we turn out like that. Unfortunately the last category is very scarce! (laughs)

Hugh Masekela

Carina Prange: Your song "Bring him back home" from 1987 has become a hymn for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. Meanwhile you returned "back home" to South Africa to live there. How is the country developing currently?

Hugh Masekela: Life for everybody is more comfortable than it was during Apartheid. In fact it's more comfortable than it's ever been-because you have to remember that in South Africa, we come from 350 years of constant war. Fifty years of which were it was conquered, it was total Apartheid. It is wonderful to see people being free. At the same time we have reached a point where we realize that freedom alone is not enough. Quality of life is important.

We have reached that phase as a nation very quickly and people began to look at South Africa as the "perfect state". They almost make a movie star out of us! Like we voted for three days—after 350 years of oppression, we voted for three days—and then came out of the vote a perfect, a miracle nation!

But there is no human beings like that. So we had to have our downfalls and pitfalls. I think that for fifteen years, what we have done was magnificent... — we might have done better, if we really were the miracle nation. But as it turns out, we are just human beings.

We should be allowed our weaknesses and faults. I don't —personally! —support these weaknesses and faults, because they could have been avoided. But I think that now we have our biggest chance. This has been our fourth election, we have our biggest chance to show our majority and how quickly we have matured. And we are at the point of the thin line between success or failure.

I am wishing Jacob Zuma's administration really well and good luck. I hope, that they can show the world that their criticisms are wrong. And the ball is in their court. And I am prepared as their citizen to support whatever area can benefit from whatever little knowledge I have. I feel like a patriot for my country. I am resident in the United States as well, very much, and also in Ghana, where my wife comes from.

But South Africa holds a special place in my heart. And the people worked very hard to get where they are today. And they deserve a good life. We have got a beautiful country with a wonderful infrastructure and the potential to become a model country. Not only for Africa but for the world. So it's a very important time for us. I hope that we don't become like other countries.

I mean Germany has been free for centuries, America for almost three centuries… England and France for almost eight centuries. And they still have problems, you know, they still have problems…

I don't believe that you shouldn't throw stones if you live in a glasshouse. But the same time I think, that people should be considerate and look at South Africa from a perspective, that we are not a miracle country, but we have done extremely well. And I wish us a great future. I think, we have the potential.

Hugh Masekela

Carina Prange: On your current CD there's a re-interpretation of the song "The Joke Of Life". What is this song about, what's the story behind it?

Hugh Masekela: It was written long ago by a dear friend of mine, the late John Lucien. And he wrote it with a great Brazilian musician. But, you know, life? For a human being life has many flowery potentials, but it has also many disappointments. And I think, the biggest joke of life is that you are born to die. (laughs)

And during your lifetime, your life can either be a joke or you can make it worthwhile. When John Lucien wrote this, we lived in an era, where we were very rough on ourselves and abusive. Propably when he wrote this song, he looked at himself and at many of his friends. And just, I guess, saw in some of us—or so many of us—, the futility of being alive. Or the way we waste our lives… I used to be an alcohol and drug addict for a very long time. And then I went to like recovering. And when I came back, I decided that I was going to try and help people not to go where I went.

If somebody says, my son, husband or wife is having a problem with alcohol or drugs, can you talk to them? And the question I ask when I do an intervention, the first thing I always ask is: "Do you feel you were born to drink?" Or: "Do you feel you were born to snort cocaine all day?"

Because, I say then, if you feel you are born for that, then I can't help! Only you can help yourself. At the time that a person is an addict or an abusive person, then their life is a joke! They are making a joke out of life. — Besides the song being a very great melody and all that, it's also, like I think, a great statement.

Carina Prange

CD: Hugh Masekela - "Phola" (Times Square Records/Edel 97012)

Hugh Masekela im Internet: www.ritmoartists.com

Times Square Records im Internet: www.timessquarerecords.net

Fotos: Pressefotos (Vielen Dank an www.griot.de)

Mehr bei Jazzdimensions:
Hugh Masekela - "The Chisa Years 1965-1975" - Review (erschienen: 10.8.2006)

© jazzdimensions 2010
erschienen: 17.5.2010
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