Feb 5, 2010

Hugh Masekela - Interview 2002

Hugh Masekela came to New York in November, 2002, to do press around his new release, Time. The city clearly awakened nostalgia for the South African legend, who has been coming here for over forty years. Banning Eyre and Christina Zafagna caught him at the end of a long day of meetings and interviews, but Hugh wasn't tired, and certainly not shy.

The interview

I'm struck right away that you have a Louis Armstrong compilation in front of you. Because I was feeling Louis Armstrong in many of the tracks on this record.


Yeah. Tell us about your relationship with Louis, artistically.

I think that anybody from the 20th century, up to now, has to be aware that if it wasn't for Louis Armstrong, we'd all be wearing powdered wigs. I think that Louis Armstrong loosened the world, helped people to be able to say "Yeah," and to walk with a little dip in their hip. Before Louis Armstrong, the world was definitely square, just like Christopher Columbus thought. Louis Armstrong paved the way for the African American experience to access European and Western social life. Because after Louis Armstrong, everybody started speaking slang. What was amazing about Louis was that he never finished a paragraph without mentioning New Orleans. He had a great sense of self, and how he got to be where he was. He was an inspiration to everybody when I was a kid, during the days of the Gramaphone.

Just by coincidence, the man who got me my first trumpet at my boarding school, Father Trevor Huddleston, was expelled from South Africa. Everybody, after about six months of playing the trumpet, went to Trevor Huddleston and said, "Father, could I have a trumpet? Could I have a trombone?" And we finally ended up with the Huddleston Jazz Band. And then he was expelled by the South African government because he was such a forward, vociferous and aggressive foe of apartheid, and he was a nightmare for [President] Verwoerd. So on his way back to England, he came here, because they have some missions here. In fact, there is one in New York on 10th Avenue, and they have another one in Rochester where there was a clarinet-playing priest from his order, who also was crazy about Dixieland and had befriended Louis Armstrong. So he introduced Father Huddleston to Louis Armstrong, and Huddleston told him about the band he had started back in South Africa and Louis Armstrong send us a trumpet. We received it when Louis Armstrong was touring Africa. He wasn't allowed to come to South Africa, but his trumpet came, and it put us in the front pages of all the written media in South Africa, including white media where they had never seen black faces on the front page before.

Later, of course, when I came to the States I got to meet him. Miriam Makeba helped me to come here, and Dizzy Gillespie was a really dear friend of his. He remained the funniest person that I've ever known. He had one story after another and he really enjoyed life. I think the greatest thing about Louis Armstrong was that he never became an adult. He remained playful. He remained a child, and that child personality made him very appealing to everybody. That and the fact that he knew where his roots were. Like I said, he couldn't talk for a paragraph without mentioning New Orleans. He always spoke like he owed a debt to New Orleans.

I think that was the greatest inspiration for me, because I don't think I would be what I am if I didn't come from South Africa. I owe an endless debt to the people of South Africa and all those other African communities all over the world that I have accessed, and lived with and learned their music. Because we're all born naked. We don't come here with anything, but we never learn to pay back. When we make it, we always think that we did it on our own.

You first came here in the late '50s, right?

1960. I arrived the day that Castro left the Waldorf to go and live at the Theresa Hotel, and it was a couple of days after Khrushchev had banged his shoe on the lectern at the U.N. and said, "We will bury you!" Lumumba was here, and Kennedy was campaigning against Nixon for the presidency. It was the time of Martin Luther King and civil rights and Belafonte, one of my sponsors, was the greatest fund raiser for civil rights. It was the time of the emergence of Malcolm X. And I came here right into the golden age of jazz, when you could go to the Apollo and see a whole gospel or Latino show, and you could go to Wells and see Abby Lincoln and Mel Waldron, and come downtown to Birdland and see Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, and go to Basin St. West and see Sarah Vaughn and Count Basie, and go to the Half Note and see Coletrane and Miles, and then cross over and see Horace Silver and Les McCann at the Village Gate, and at the Jazz Gallery it would be Monk and Dizzy, and across the street at Five Spot would be Max Roach and Charlie Mingus. It was that kind of a time. You could go to the Coronet in Brooklyn. And you'd do all this if you were a student on like less than twenty bucks. Today, twenty bucks doesn't even get you into a club.

Well, I was thinking about that history and all that's happened to you, here and in South Africa. Your new record is called Time, so I guess you're thinking about that kind of perspective as well. How does the world look different to you now? Let's talk first about this place, America. New York. How is it different from the world you found in 1960?

It doesn't look that different. You know, I always think of my life from a musical perspective, and music doesn't really change. The industry has tried to change it and tried to label it and categorize it. But music: you either like it or you don't, and it makes life simple because it's not translatable as a language. You know, it goes to the heart and the mind.

I have the greatest joke about New York. When we brought Sarafina to New York, the kids were like fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and one of the lead singers, who had just turned fifteen, said to me, "Uncle Hugh, there's going to be a very big carnival happening in New York, right?" I said, "Why do you think that?" She said, "They are preparing. All over, they are digging. They are fixing things and all that. Something very big is going to happen." I said, "This is New York. I've been here like seventeen years. They've been doing the same thing."

She said, "Ah, you like to joke! You're so funny." And then, about three years later, we were on Broadway and they were still digging, and I said, "So when do you think the carnival is going to be?" And she said, "Leave me alone." She still lives in New York and whenever I see her, I say, "Carnival's coming soon."

When I came here as a student in 1960, the big slogan was, Con Edison had a big billboard that said, "Dig we must for a greater New York." But they're always digging. Can you dig it?

I dig it. Alright, let's talk about your side. You weren't able to go to South Africa for how long?

Thirty years.

So what's it like to live there again now?

Well, for me it's a real bonanza because I never thought I'd be able to go back home, and I've been back twelve years. And in twelve years, I've been able to get to the point where like this album Time is on Chissa Records, which is our own label. I think that, except for like the young musicians who are into like what is called kwaito--South African hip-hop or whatever you call it--they are the first people to do their own productions. It the same way it happened when reggae started in Jamaica or when samba became a craze in Brazil. We're just getting into a stage where we're building the first steps towards creating our own industry, and our own manufacturing, wholesaling and marketing, and hopefully our own distribution. And our own broadcasting. But that's going to take time because we are trying to access a business that was previously white owned. With Chissa, we're trying to set up something that is modeled on Motown, where there's collaboration instead of divided artists. We all try to bring like excellence out of each other.

After being home for twelve years, this is the first time I've been able to do what I dreamed of doing when I went back--to unlock the excellence of all the diverse talent that is there. There are big bands there, and there's nostalgia. There's music I first heard when I was a kid. There are bands that I grew up with. So it's like a kaleidoscope of what is available in South Africa. We did this by choosing the material first and then rehearsing it so that when we got into the studio we wouldn't spend much time, so we could afford it. But the reaction we have gotten! This is the first album I've done since I went back to Africa that is really getting international attention. It means that this kind of collaboration has a universal appeal.

And our other two artists--we just did Sepho Tsola and we did Busi Mhlongo that we just finished last Friday--their albums were done the same way. And it's the beginning. I'm just one of the people who's beginning to get to the point where the music industry won't be owned by the old establishment five years from now. That to me is one of the most exciting things. I'd like to be able to do it in television. I'd like to be able to do it in film, events. In anything where we have been consumers, I'd like to see us becoming retailers and manufacturers and exporters. Having not been allowed into enterprise until a few years ago--we were just a cheap labor, mega warehouse for exploitation--that's the exciting part for me. I wish I was younger because it's going to take a long time.

But the main thing is planting the seed and changing the mindset not only of our people to say, "Yes, I can," but also changing the mindset of the old establishment who are the people who are really free because they have the economic wherewithal to enjoy freedom and to do something that could make South Africa the beacon of Africa as far as arts are concerned, by having a real African industry.

Spike Lee said it long ago. He was one of the patrons of the Africa Arts Fund--we used to like raise funds here to educate South Africans in the arts--and at one of our fundraisers he made a speech and he said, "The one thing you shouldn't kid yourselves about is to think that when South Africa is free, the ones who oppressed you and made all this money off of your backs are going to turn around and say, 'Sorry that we oppressed you for all these years. Here's five-hundred-trillion dollars to show you how sorry we are.' It's not part of human nature. It's never happened anywhere in the world, and why people should expect it to happen in South Africa--it's kind of naïve."

So to a certain extent, we have freed the people who were privileged before because now there is no longer an international embargo against them. They are the ones who are benefiting from the efforts we put in to free ourselves. That's one thing we learned from Mandela, who said, "Well, whatever it is, it's better than destroying the place. So build on whatever it is." We are not expecting to see any good will charity from the people who fed off, who still feed off us. I don't like for people to see South Africa disappearing into the horizon singing "Hi-De-Ho, Hi-De-Hi." All the solidarity groups that supported us and all the NGOs that supported us have left and said, "You're free now. Good luck. We have to go."

To that extent, life is more difficult than before, but nobody is harassing us, and we have opportunities open to us. We obviously won't get the funding to have a revival of our excellence from the people who oppressed us before, because it would mean that they did something wrong before. So we have to generate it ourselves. I'm just generating a picture of what we are facing. But we certainly have the talent. That can't be taken away from us. And we have the enthusiasm and we have the will, and I think that in the long run, maybe my nephew sitting here with me now, maybe his generation will be the ones who like run away with it and come up with the industries that we are trying to establish right now.

On the musical side, I think this is a strong album. It's varied, passionate, engaged, and it covers all these different genres. One thing that really strikes me is your singing. I always thought of you as a horn player who sang, but you really have some great singing on here. It seems to me that you've risen to a new level as a singer here. Do you think that's true?

Well, I think I'm a healthier person. I had quite a delinquent life. I got by a lot with talent, but six years ago, I decided to like admit to myself that I was like an alcoholic and a druggie and decided to go into recovery. When I came out, not only did I go public, but it became a passion of mine to help people like myself. In the process, I think that my thinking got clearer. My focus got sharper. And I knew what to go after. And all the things that I thought I could do well when I was high, I was very wrong about. In the five years that I've been clean, miracles have happened for me in every way, in my private life and in my creative life.

I actually handed in my last 77 pages of my manuscript today for my autobiography, which Random House is very excited about. We had a major, high-powered meeting today and they'll be publishing it. That has taken seven years, but in the last five years, I was really able to do it because I was focused. And I think that it's like that with everything. At first, it looked like a stretch, because when you're high, you're recovering every day, so you're working at ten-percent of your capability. But you are straight, you first remember what you really felt like as a child, and once you have regurgitated all those things that made you unhappy and wanting to hide behind a mind-altered state. Addictive people do things in excess. Other people can have a glass of wine or take one toke off a joint and say, "I got to do what I got to do." But a person like me, if I go to a party, they have to chase me away. [LAUGHS] "Hugh, we want to sleep. You've been here for three days, now, and the booze is finished." "It is!?"

So I think that comes out in the last three projects I've done. But I've finally got the window, and seen where to go, and it feels great.

The music speaks well for that.

I also had great collaborators. You know, all the people that I admired and should have worked with earlier, I finally identified them and said, "Let's do this," and they were almost like, "Damn, we've been waiting for you to get like this so we can do it."

It's a hell of a band.

Yeah, just wonderful people too. You know, at home, we're trying to come up with funding to tour this contingency. It's a 20-piece band, with like eight vocalists. When we did the launch for this album, we had everybody again, plus a 50-piece choir and it was just massive. It was fantastic. For me, the joy of it all was I never thought it would happen in my lifetime again, so I'm doing it with the enthusiasm of a child. I'm like a pig in swill. I never thought I'd be able to do this music with its owners, the people who can really express it. It's just wonderful to be back home.

That's wonderful. Let me just ask you about a few of the songs. "Happy Mama." That's really got that mbaqanga thing. To me, it's an interesting marriage of a jazz vocal approach and mbaqanga. Tell me how that came about.

It's an old song. "Send Me" and "Happy Mama" are like folk songs. "Happy Mama" was sung mostly by prisoners long ago. When I come out of jail, my mother is happy to see me. It's just a natural thing. It's a sing-along. And "Send Me" was a conciliatory song that was sung mostly at wakes. In South Africa, up to today, when somebody dies, you go to console the people and all week you go to the house and sing at night, and it's actually like a kind of township gospel song. But all these songs are songs of hope, encouragement, and conciliation, also celebration and joy. And "Happy Mama" was picked up by--I don't know if you've seen Amandla [the film]--but there are some guys who sing it. They picked it up when they were in the camps. That's a song that was picked up by the liberation movement and became one of their themes.

On both songs, I put English inserts there to be able to explain it, because all the years that I used to live here, people would say, "Hugh, that's a beautiful song. What are you singing about?" They're often like two-or-three word songs, that get the message across. So with this album, like "Saduva," we've got English lyrics, just to explain what the song is about so people will feel like they're participating in the experience.

And you sing in French on "Ce Soir."

And I gather from the notes that it's a little bit tongue in cheek.

Yeah, it's a stupid song. [LAUGHS] It's a stupid song about a guy who sees this girl who only speaks patois when she hears samba music, and he's obviously after her, and then when she hears it, she starts to cry and then she disappears while they are dancing the samba. And then he says she doesn't speak any English or French, but a whole lot of Zulu and Chinese. This is very bizarre, and he says, "Yesterday, she called me so that we could go dancing, but this time, I'm not going to let her go." It's a joke, but you can tell it was written by someone who has been to a lot of movies.

On a slightly more serious note, in "Cochita," you're dealing with the whole Latin music thing.

Yeah, well that was my first entrée to American. I went to school in Spanish Harlem. When I came here, the Manhattan School of Music was on 105th St. between 2nd and 3rd Avenue, and like the second generation of Puerto Ricans were about my age at the time. It was the time of West Side Story, and the Palladium. Tito Puente was the king, and Celia Cruz was in here thirties. You know what I mean? Eddie and Charlie Palmieri were still young people. Ray Baretto was still a teenager. Willie Colon and Pacheco and all these people were there, and I went out with a lot of a great mamitas, and I could do a major charanga and pachanga, and I was taught by those people. Ella Breu (??) was like 19-years old when he joined my band. He was a genius who came out of the Tito Puente band and we went to school together. So I got to be able to speak pretty good Puerto Riceño. Oh, goña, Mami!. It's a world that I know very, very vividly.

That's interesting, because I've spent a lot of time in West and Central Africa.

So did I.

And there, as you know, the influence of Latin and Cuban music is so much stronger than it is in South Africa. South Africa was sort of insulated from all that during the 1940s and 50s, wouldn't you say?

We were more exposed to like African-American pop and jazz, and not only that, but there's nothing we didn't know about Glen Miller or Benny Goodman or Frank Sinatra, or Tommy Dorsey or Jimmy Dorsey.

Which was much less felt in West Africa.

Right. They didn't know it. They were more exposed to the Caribbean, because most of the people of the Caribbean come from them. Like, the South African experience is a great parallel to a great extent to that of the African American people here. Also the hopes, and the styles. I think that for urban life--you know, because we were a rural people--when we came to the cities and we had to learn urban life and Western life, the only model that we had access to was the African American experience, because here were people who came out of slavery and became third-class citizens when they were so-called "freed." Just like in South Africa, their slavery really didn't go, and it's still very evident when you go to the African American neighborhoods, or even the Latino neighborhoods in this country. You can still see the bigotry lingering that affects their lives.

But still, the most sparkling people socially in this country are the African Americans and Latinos. All over the world, everybody tries to dress like them, to sing like them, to dance like them, to cook like them, to walk like them, to talk like them. And I think that was a great inspiration to us. You know, you can be oppressed, but there's something that they can't take away from you, your talent and your sparkle. They sure have the sparkle.
Hugh Maskela, 'Uptownship' cover art

I have to ask you about a personal favorite of mine, kind of a message song, and a powerful one, "Change." Tell me about that song.

One thing "Change" is going to do is curtail my traveling around Africa. That's for sure. But you know, there are a lot of things that are wrong. In the '80s, artists were singing a lot about South Africa. There was the Live Aid, the starvation thing. They seem to have always gotten their inspiration for social commentary about things that were going wrong. At one time in this country, it was the civil rights. There were a lot of protest songs. And then it was the anti-Vietnam war movement. And then it became the poverty thing in Africa. But in South Africa, everything was very militant. When we had guns facing us, and tanks and bullets, we used to take to the street at the slightest infringement of any of our rights. But since we voted, we've become very complacent, and we sort of don't know how to translate what freedom is. Because when politicians lead you into the freedom loop, they don't give you a prescription of how to live when you are free. By then, they are completely obsessed with their own successes, and their own inroads, and amnesia sets in.

I just feel like there are too many things that are going on that are wrong in Africa: the generals with their surrogate wars that are really inspired by greed for the cheap international price of raw materials. There are people that just feel that they own the countries that have chosen them as leaders, and they never want to retire. These are things that have to be said.

When I did "Change"…. I don't compose songs. They are sent to me. Songs that are meaningful are sent to you. I was saying earlier that everyone of us wakes up with a song of the day. We all wake up humming a tune. But sometimes, if you are a musician, that space is occupied by a song that was sent to you and you feel that this song has to be heard and it's something that has to be said. And yes, change is very, very badly needed in Africa. But we have to realize that for the international business establishment, they prefer Africa in turmoil because then the raw materials are available at cheap prices, so it's in the interest of many people who are in business to make sure that there is turmoil in Africa, to make sure that exploitable societies never progress, because otherwise, who's going to like sweep? Who's going to collect the garbage.

I mentioned Thomas Mapfumo earlier, and one of the reasons I'm writing about him is that he is someone who has stood for that principle over the years, never accepting the idea that just because we've won our freedom, the fight is over. No, there's always another fight. I told him that you mention Mugabe by name in that song, and he was very pleased about that.

[LAUGHS] Well, the thing is, what we always have to remember is that the source of our success is the people we come from. We can't forget where we came from. Again, I have to bring up Louis Armstrong. So you have to pay back, because when you are born, you are born naked. You don't come here with anything. My grandmother always reminded me that when I was born, I didn't bring any money, I didn't have anywhere to sleep, and it took me three years to show me where the bathroom was. They taught me how to talk. They taught me how to think. They taught me how to walk. I lived rent-free, and they clothed me and gave me food for seventeen years. I would never be able to repay them, but at least, I must always acknowledge that when I came into this world, I didn't know shit, and that if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't know anything. If you live by that motto, I think that you are not only able to pay back, but it sort of helps to center you. You have to remember that. You didn't make it by yourself.

I have one last thought going off that. You were talking about paying homage to the people who came before you. I appreciate a lot of older music, music that not a lot of my contemporaries listen to, and your last song "Old People, Old Folks" talks about how old people listen to music too and still have their finger on the pulse. I was wondering think we can create more fusion between younger and older people through music.

We have to not follow advertising as much as we do, and not exclude old people from our lives. They're the only ones who know who we are. That's the one thing that I've been able never to forget. I hang out a lot with the older people. When I came back home, one of the things that I thought I'd do was to relearn the languages and be very proficient in them. We have long family praises. I was telling Nicole today, and I'm going to finish with this. Traditionally, when they ask you what your name is, you couldn't just say "I'm Christina." They would say, "Christina of who?" Then you say your surname. Then they say, "Of what? Of where?" So you had to be able to know your lineage. That's like poetics. When I go to my village, I spend a lot of time with my aunts and my uncles. They are all in their 80s and 90s and they teach me saying. I mean, my name, for example, is Ramapola Hugh [HUGH FOLLOWS WITH ABOUT FORTY SECONDS OF AFRICAN ADORNMENT ENDING IN A LOUD THROAT WARBLE.] And that's just my nick name.

But it's important to know where you come from, because otherwise, where are you going? You can't go anywhere if you don't have a starting point. And if you don't hang out with the old folks, if you don't find what your path is about, then you are completely open to being consumed by foreign cultures. You don't have a mirror against which to judge them. They consume you completely. But if you do have your background, then you can also see the great things about other cultures, and you know what not to try and access because you are not it. We have become hybrids of things that we pick up from television. When I grew up, we didn't have television, so we played more in the street. But today's younger people don't have the potential for longevity because they don't play as much and they don't exercise as much. They are not into nature as much. They're into cyber, and they're into television, and they're into machines. To a certain extent, they're like manipulated people. It's great to use all those things, but you have to have that mirror that shields from them, and only from hanging out with old folks can you get the wisdom of the past, and you might also be able to know a little more about herbs and how to use them to heal yourself.

So we can learn how to play from old people. That's ironic.
Yeah, like that long quotation I was just saying. It's very playful. We don't play anymore. We can't even calculate; we have to have a calculator; we've become finger people. And it's dangerous. I think that's how species become extinct. After awhile, they don't have a past, so they become mutations of themselves. I think so. I gotta go. My mom is looking at me.

Thanks, Hugh. It's a great pleasure. Are you coming here to play soon?

Next year. April.

I hope you can bring your 20-piece band.

Me too. Let's speak to somebody. You have Bill Gates' phone number?

Interview by Banning Eyre & Christina Zafagna


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