On the record with Hugh Masekela

Interview
Derrick Mbatha
Hugh Masekela interviewed by African RenewalA South African jazz icon talks about the Millennium Development Goals, Nelson Mandela and his grandfather the fly.
Photograph: UN Africa Renewal / Michael Fleshman

Hugh Masekela, the legendary South African trumpet player, band leader and anti-apartheid activist, is known for blowing his horn and speaking his mind. In the Brooklyn district of New York City we had the opportunity to hear him do both.

Africa Renewal had come to the Kumble Theater in downtown Brooklyn to hear Mr. Masekela play and to speak with him about his participation in the recording of the UN-promoted 8 Goals for Africa song and music video. The song promotes and popularizes the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). But over the course of a 20-minute backstage interview, the veteran performer, whose career spans more than five decades and includes dozens of hit songs and chart-topping recordings, touched on everything from the MDGs to Nelson Mandela’s birthday to Africa’s borders.

The goals, adopted by the UN in 2000, set a 2015 deadline for reaching eight vital development targets, including halving extreme poverty and hunger, fighting AIDS and other diseases, and reducing child and maternal death rates. Africa, the poorest region, has made significant progress on many of the MDGs. But with farther to go than other continents, it is unlikely to reach them all. The song is expected to get heavy airplay during the World Cup in South Africa, and help mobilize the games’ global audience behind Africa’s drive to reach the objectives.

Uplifting Africa

Was that why Mr. Masekela agreed to play on it? “There are so many records like that one that I have been asked to participate in,” he replies. “But … it’s always an honour to be in these things that have to do with uplifting Africa.” It was also an opportunity to play with some of Africa’s most popular musicians, including Baaba Maal, Angelique Kidjo, Oliver Mtukudzi and Yvonne Chaka Chaka, among others. “I know Eric Wainaina, who wrote this song,” he continues. “I think it’s a beautiful song and he wrote it with Jimmy Dludlu. We are very, very dear friends.”

When it comes to expanding access to health care, education and clean water, however, Mr. Masekela cautions: “We don’t have the power as artists.” Real change, he says, takes political will and leadership, qualities he thinks are often lacking in the region’s politicians. “We have had so many promises from African leaders since we were kids,” he notes. “And I just hope that as we keep doing these things as artists and as musicians, finally it may result in something. But a lot of the promises that are made in Africa are empty promises. And it is a disappointment because people really believe them.”

“It breaks my heart because I am 71 now and I have been watching this since I was in my teens and it seems like it’s not going to change,” he continues. “Not only in Africa but in much of the world, most leaders’ pockets are lined by industrial business. And industrial business is never going to stop aiming at profit. Africa, as a continent, we need a combined leadership to say enough is enough…. One of the greatest things that could really happen to Africa is for us to get rid of the borders and for the leadership not to think that the countries belong to them…. We didn’t create the borders to start with.”

Honouring Nelson Mandela

Mr. Masekela left apartheid South Africa in 1960 after a massacre of unarmed black protesters by the police in Sharpeville. His 1987 song, Bring Him Back Home, became an anthem for the international campaign to free Nelson Mandela from prison. He therefore welcomes the UN’s declaration of 18 July as Nelson Mandela International Day. “It’s wonderful. It’s wonderful for Mandela. It’s wonderful for an African to be recognized that way…. Mandela was chosen as a symbol of the South African struggle and he did that great. But I wasn’t just happy for him. I was happy for the people. Those were the real heroes…. Many of them laid their lives down for our freedom.”

“They say he made his term short because he wasn’t greedy for leadership,” he says of Mr. Mandela’s decision to step down after one term as South Africa’s president. “But we were greedy for his leadership. For me it was a disappointment that he resigned as soon as he did. He was a great man, but he never had the chance to do what he wanted to do....”

“I will be glad [when] the United Nations decides they want to celebrate a holiday for the two billion Africans all over the world,” he adds, in a reference to Africans and their descendants in the diaspora. “That’s a holiday that should be celebrated every first of the month because the strength of the industrial world, to a great extent, was extracted from exploiting Africa.”

‘Happy birthday, tata’

But the evening wasn’t entirely about politics. Mr. Masekela appeared onstage with Somi, an up-and-coming jazz singer born in the US of African parents. The performance mixed musical interludes with conversation between the established star and the emerging one about life and art in the African diaspora. But Somi, who uses only a single name, sometimes struggled to keep the discussion on culture, as Mr. Masekela instead regaled the audience with a rapid-fire monologue of jokes and stories.

At one point, after swatting vainly at a fly buzzing around his head, Mr. Masekela professed a belief in reincarnation and declared to the crowd that the fly must be his deceased grandfather. This had to be the case, the jazz great asserted mischievously, because his grandfather had been equally persistent.

When asked what he would say to Mr. Mandela on the international day, which falls on the leader’s 92nd birthday, Mr. Masekela flashed his trademark grin and replied “happy birthday, tata.”

— Africa Renewal online