The passion of Hugh Masekela

He talked to reporter Peter Uduehi in Toronto

Peter Uduehi

Bopping, weaving and strutting across the stage like a man who would not let go of his teenager years, 70-year-old trumpeter Hugh Masekela says he’s only getting stronger as time progresses.

The native South African performed recently at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall before a 2,000-capacity audience on a rainy evening he jested was as impassioned as attending his concert on a flurry day some winters ago, an indication that he truly appreciates his Canadian fans.

One fan, for example, returned the favourable remark after the night with a compliment referring to his entire aura on stage, particularly his dance moves by saying “he must be in his seventies; he is giving everyone especially those of us in our fifties the hope that life is not boring after all in old age”.

Masekela told the Africa World he knew he was born to entertain the world at an early age. “I started playing the piano at six, and some people took notice of my talent including Trevor Huddleston who bought me my first trumpet. And when I found the trumpet I never put it down.”

Huddleston was the Anglican priest who was once Archbishop of Mauritius and the Indian Ocean. He worked in South Africa and became known for his anti-apartheid activism. Banned from reentering South Africa by the white-minority dictatorial racist regime, he was President of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in 1981 from outside. He died in 1998.

“I will never forget Huddleston,” Masekela said, noting he’s writing a book about the former archbishop from Bedford, England. “His work deserves mention.

The South African legend, who spent many years living in different African countries and the United States in the apartheid years, says another passion of his these days is “creating the excellence of Africa. Yes I’m a child of the world, I love everybody even though I must tell you that being a part of the human specie in the past decades has left much to be desired because of the way we humans have treated each other...the racism, fascism and a plethora of things that are just disgusting”. He says he deals with these shortcomings with a great deal of laughter and humour because “it is the highest order of truth, to be able to laugh at ourselves”.

Asked why Africa is a passion of his, Masekela said “we all have to start from somewhere and that he sees himself beyond ‘pan-Africanism’,” saying that “African is a huge concept for me; I believe Africa should be one country because I personally don’t recognize the current frontiers that are prescribed to Africa. We should be one, and if we are not careful as Africans we will disappear from the map considering the current happenings in the continent right now”.

Extremely disappointed that Africans today don’t know much of their history and what it means to be called ‘an African’, the trumpeter notes that African people are not doing enough to mark their place in history. In decades to come, he opined, “people will say ‘there used to be a people called Africans’ if we are not careful”.

Saying the recent World Cup staged in South Africa may have drawn the world to the continent in a big way, and may have helped hotel owners and other business people, it says nothing about the many injustices suffered by the continent over many centuries. Africa needs more than the World Cup to revive the culture, he said.

“Until we begin to control things, the media, the arts, for example, our story will continue to be told by others who know zilch about us...and until we control the media and the arts” African musicians will continue to struggle to find their voice and be well-known as a staple on the diet of the world’s consumption. “The only way African musicians will become well known is if we Africans control the media,” he repeated, stressing “we need to have our priorities together,” adding that “most African musicians live outside the continent” because they are looking for ways to promote themselves worldwide.”

Apart from Huddleston who inspired him, Masekela said his true inspirations are “people...everybody is my inspiration because basically I’m a child of the world...I draw inspiration from everyone I meet. I have lived in many cultures and been to many places.

None the least was Nigeria, where he met the legendary Afro-beat musician the late Fela Kuti. Describing him (as well as the late singer Mariam Makeba of South Africa) as two of the greatest Africans that ever lived, Masekela says his knowledge of Africa and particularly West Africa was bolstered by “my meeting Fela. Fela not only taught me pidgin English, he was a joy and history in motion apart from being an extraordinary musician”. He said the current musical on Broadway about Fela’s life (which won three Tony Awards) is okay at best and that “Fela would have preferred a work on him to show more of his political and social sides. This is like a Disney version of Fela”.

Playing tracks from his compositions over the years in his Toronto concert, Masekela traded funny stories of his youth in South Africa with his audience, folkloric anecdotes that can also be found in his new CD Jabulani, mostly a compilation of wedding songs from his native Zulu tradition. 

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Mr Miguna is a barrister in Canada, where he holds a citizenship. The Kenyan constitution, which was enacted in August 2010, allows for dual citizenship.