Known best for his 1968 feel-good hit "Grazin' in the Grass," South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela has always been much more than a pop musician. On tour in the United States, Masekela recently released Sixty (Shanachie), an album that emphasizes his first love, jazz, while looking back at the African music and funk he's also mastered over the past four decades.
"Hugh is a great musician," said his longtime guitarist, John Selolwane. "He's very versatile as well as a superb arranger and composer."
The musician, now 61, experienced his musical awakening when he saw the 1951 Kirk Douglas film "Young Man With a Horn." Douglas' portrayal of jazzman Bix Beiderbecke, he said, "brought me to the trumpet." At the time, Masekela was attending St. Peter's Secondary School in Rosettenville. He had already studied piano for years.
Masekela's trumpet prowess quickly led to pro status. While still a teenager he played with the now-legendary Manhattan Brothers vocal quartet, African Jazz and the Merry Makers, which, he said, included his main mentors, Elijah Nkwanyna and Banzi Bangane. "They were my first idols, especially Elijah," Masekela said. Those blowing days are recalled musically on "Bo Masekela" (RealAudio excerpt), from his new album.
In 1959, at 19, Masekela joined the Jazz Epistles, the first band to record authentic African jazz, music that fused tribal rhythms with American swing.
However, Masekela said he felt that he needed to visit the United States to progress as a jazz player. Sponsored by former colleague (and future wife) Miriam Makeba, he ended up at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, where, he said, "you weren't allowed to play jazz in the rooms."
The American Years
While attending school, Masekela sat in with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Les McCann at local jazz clubs. Once his studies were complete, however, he decided to return to South Africa.
"I wanted to impart the knowledge I'd gathered," Masekela recalled. "But by then it was really too late. People were being imprisoned and killed." Apartheid was in full effect, and the Public Safety Act and the Criminal Law Amendment Act had empowered the government to declare strict states of emergency.
"Harry Belafonte told me that with my big mouth I'd never last in South Africa," Masekela said. "He suggested staying [and] making a name for myself in America. And then when I talked, people would listen."
Masekela heeded the singer's advice and during the next several years worked all over the United States. He opened for Motown acts, played jazz and folk festivals, and in 1967 ended up in San Francisco, where, he recalled, "I was a flower child! I hung out with Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix."
"Grazin' in the Grass" made him a pop star the following year. Recorded in half an hour as album filler, the track brought him international fame and eventually sold more than 4 million copies. But by 1972 Masekela had had enough of the high life and returned to South Africa.
A Turbulent Homecoming
"I couldn't just parade my success when there was so much oppression at home," he said. "I decided to return to Africa and follow my ears." One of his guides was the late Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, who is celebrated on Sixty with "Fela" (RealAudio excerpt). "Fela introduced me to a lot of bands, especially Ghana's Hedzollah Sound." Masekela recorded at least three albums with Hedzollah as his backing band, including the original version of "Been Such a Long Time Gone" (RealAudio excerpt).
Settling in Botswana, Masekela opened a music school and remained there until 1985. Then, he said, "the South African Defense Squads came and raided us, killing a lot of people, including friends of mine." At that point the government couldn't safeguard the life of any South African activist, and Masekela had been active politically.
Abandoning South Africa for England, Masekela co-wrote the score to the musical Sarafina!, then hooked up with Paul Simon to play on the pop star's South African-inspired Graceland tour. Simon had come under fire for flaunting United Nations sanctions and recording in South Africa, but the participation of Masekela and a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo proved an eloquent defense.
"We still reminisce about it!" guitarist Selolwane said. "For all the controversies, Simon did a lot for South African music. He helped bring it into the international sphere. Ladysmith Black Mambazo wouldn't be musical icons today if he hadn't brought them into what he was working on. Music is music; it cuts across all barriers."
When Dreams Come True
With the end of apartheid in 1994, Masekela was able to go home.
"It was hard to believe until it actually happened," he said. "Reliving a dream isn't something you think about; it's a fantasy. And I'm in the midst of my fantasy right now!"
Masekela's current project consists in building an infrastructure for young South African musicians, filmmakers and television producers in his country so that "maybe by the next generation our artists will go to other countries as an exception rather than as a rule. If I have 15 good years left, I'm going to use them to help develop an African arts industry as dynamic and independent as India's."
He'd also like to tour less so he can release more albums. "I miss the Blue Note and Riverside days when artists could put out five or six records a year," he said.
The man with the hit, the jazz player, the African musician, the funkster; after more than 40 years of playing, Masekela remains unclassifiable, and he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I'm the sum total of my influences; I don't categorize myself. Because I got into music as a child, I still take a childlike approach to it."
Hugh Masekela tour dates:
June 23; Detroit, Mich.; Orchestral Hall
June 24; Chicago, Ill.; Museum of Contemporary Art Solstice Festival
June 25; Toronto, Ontario; JVC Jazz Festival
June 27; Arcata, Calif.; Humboldt State University
June 28; San Francisco, Calif.; The Fillmore
June 29; Los Angeles, Calif.; California Plaza
June 30; Boulder, Colo.; Fox Theater
July 1; Englewood, Colo.; Gothic Theater
July 2; Quincy, Calif.; High Sierra Music Festival