In late 1990, I was sipping a beer at Kippy's – a jazz joint in Johannesburg – when there was a sudden hush in the place.
A man had walked in. And many had recognised him.
He was a man who could not be ignored when he entered any place. But entering a jazz joint IN JOHANNESBURG was, to him, like a mechanic going back to the workshop in which he held his first spanner.
The man was Hugh Masekela the country/s – and Africa's – most revered musician. As it happened, that night at Kippy's was the one on which he was visiting a music joint in his home country for the first time in thirty years!
As a free-thinking, fast-talking, irreverent musician who had no doubt whatsoever that he had been endowed with a supreme talent that no-one – but no-one – was to be allowed to suppress, he had had to flee South Africa, where black musicians were not allowed to play in the lucrative “whites-only” venues. Except through smuggled avenues.
Masekela had to spend thirty good years in exile, alongside many of the most talented musicians of his generation, including Miriam Makeba and Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim).
If you have only heard these artistes on records, you might think that those of us who have had the privilege of hearing them live make too much of the experience. But to hear Miriam Makeba nightingaling the night away a few feet from one's seat; or to hear the notes of Mannenberg floating from a visible piano to be sprayed into one's ears – these are supreme moments of artistic ecstasy.
And that being so, to have been present when Hugh Masekela was blowing notes from his horn into the air of South Africa for the first time in 30 years, must count as an experience to die for.
That night at Kippy's was exceptional in every respect. For before Hugh Masekela walked in, I had been chatting to George Lee – a Ghanaian tenor saxophonist who had been delighting me at Lido Nightclub in Accra and whom I had last encountered in London blowing his horn in a musical called The Black Mikado.
Anyone who knew the musical history of South Africa and heard Hugh Masekela blow his horn that night (he just blended seamlessly into the jazz band that was on its regular gig at Kippy's) must have been awed by the significance of the moment. Nelson Mandela had come “home to Soweto” after 27 years in prison. And the rest of South Africa's most gifted people – all of whom, like Masekela, had thought it wise to put fresh air between themselves and the stench emitted against Africans by the apartheid regime – were drifting back home.
Four years later, on the day South Africa crowned Mandela as its First President [10 May 1994] I was again privileged to run by accident into two famous returnees – Dennis Brutus (poet and organiser of the first boycotts that ended in South Africa being kicked out of Olympic sports) and Lewis Nkosi, writer and critic, whom I had first encountered at the first Conference of African writers in Kampala, Uganda, in 1962 and had subsequently fraternised with in London.
(Those were heady days, I tell you. I took Dennis and Lewis to my room at the Carlton Hotel and we finished a bottle of Chivas Regal during a talkthon in which
Dennis and Lewis laid the ghosts of some of the intricate thoughts that had bugged them during their days abroad. Suppose they had never seen South Africa again, as they had feared? Would exile have been worth that loss? Did they do enough whilst they were in exile? I am sure both men carried tons of guilt to their graves – as didn't whom who was accursed by the paradoxes of life under apartheid?
But back to Hugh Masekela. I only really became aware of his extraordinary talent with the release of Grazing In The Grass in 1968.The track had the distinctly South African township musical idioms ofmbaqanga and kwela. Yet the deft handling of the arrangement lent it an unmistakably jazz sound. Unusually danceable, it was yet pleasant to the ear. No wonder that – as Robin Denselow noted in the LondonGuardian – “it topped the US pop charts for three weeks!
Grazing In The Grass propelled Masekela from an obscure trumpeter who had featured as one of the many talents that had worked to bring world fame to the musical, King Kong to world attention, into the top position in the jazz-soul-funk arena of “with-it” music.
Poverty and the other deprivations of exile now took leave of him.
But Hugh wasn't one to be smitten with affectation because fame and good fortune had arrived at his door. He sought new musical challenges and this quest took him to Nigeria (where he collaborated for a while with the unconventional Afro-beat king, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, and to Ghana, where he worked with the adventurous musical impresario, Faisal Helwani and his Hedzorle band.
Hugh died at the age of 78. He'd had a good life (including two years of marriage to the delectable Miriam Makeba.) His voice was vigorous (he loved singing as much as displaying superb artistry on the trumpet and fugelhorn).
What was not generally known was that he loved fun and had a very good sense of humour. That night at Kippy's, he spent time practising his Lagosian pidgin English on me!
And inn an interview with the BBC's [South Africa presenter of Focus on Africa] Audrey Brown, he recalled asking Fela why Fela had courted unwelcome publicity by divorcing all his “27 wives” at a time.
According to Hugh, Fela replied that he had divorced all 27 of them “because they were jealous of his his girl friends!”
Yes – the world has lost a really unique star. He certainly will provide magnificent entertainment to those who have preceded him to wherever it is that good musicians go after life on Planet Earth.
May his soul rest in peace.
Writer: Cameron Duodu