Still grazing

Arguably the most celebrated musician on WOMADelaide’s 2013 bill, 73-year-old Afro jazz pioneer Hugh Masekela will perform his only Australian show at WOMAD.

The creator of jazz standards such as Grazing in the Grass and Stimela (Coal Train), Masekela is also responsible for the Nelson Mandela anthem Bring Him Back Home. With a career spanning more than 50 years, the flugelhorn player, composer, singer and bandleader left South Africa in 1960 to study at the Manhattan School of Music. Also in New York were his future wife, the late Miriam Makeba, and peers including Miles Davis and mentor Harry Belafonte.

“I studied at the Manhattan School Of Music, which at the time was a classical conservatory university but I went there during the golden age of jazz and the beginning of rhythm and blues,” Masekela explains. “I was really a pig in dirty mud because I just had everything. I was very lucky. It was a very active period and a lot of people helped me. It was a very rich learning era for me.”

The two-time Grammy winner hit number one on the US charts with his 1968 record Grazing in the Grass, which held the Rolling Stones’ Jumping Jack Flash off the number one position. Rather than be shocked by his fusion of jazz and African sounds, Masekela says the public was fascinated by it.

“At the time they were also very fascinated with Miriam Makeba. There were very few African artists; I think we were two of the first, so it was refreshing for international artists. African music has taken a very great part in international music festivals.”

Especially festivals such as WOMAD. Away from WOMAD, Masekela was involved with some historic music festivals. He performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. He co-organised the infamous Zaire 74 concert, which accompanied the Muhammad Ali and George Foreman Rumble in the Jungle fight, where African American and African music giants including James Brown, Bill Withers, BB King and Miriam Makebe performed to more than 80,000 people. The concert was featured in the documentaries When we were Kings and Soul Power.

With more than 50 albums to his name, Masekela released two albums last year, Playing @ Work and the collaboration album Friends with Larry Willis. He will feature some of Playing @Work’s tracks at WOMADelaide.

“We’re planning on playing some from Playing @ Work because the album with Larry was just duets, and we’re doing our first mini tour in the States with Larry in June but I will be with the band [at WOMAD], so we’re playing our regular favourites and some of our new songs.”



Away from music and there is a biopic on Masekela and his son the ESPN commentator Sal Masekela in the works. “Sal is the one that’s really doing it. He’s got financing to do a movie on his life and I’m just supporting him with it.” And an original novel, Honky. “I have it with a few editors and publishing houses looking to see if they’re interested but there’s no real particular hurry [to publish].”

In 2010 Masekela set up his studio and label Masekela House, where he recorded Playing @ Work. Masekela will use the studio and label to record and release up and coming acts.

“We’re not doing mass production, we’re trying to raise the bar and do high level musicianship productions. We can’t fast forward everything. We’re not using the programming style they do now where everything is digital. We play live music.”

Masekela says there is young South African jazz talent, but the problem for the talented kids is the lack of venues.

“There are no real places for them to play. Something happened in the last 10 years where clubs and community centres sort of became unavailable and the clubs closed. There are no real places for young musicians to show off their talents but there is a drive to try and establish more places where people can upgrade their skills.”

One of Masekela’s big passions is Heritage Restoration - to preserve African culture.

“It’s a major obsession for me and right now I’m working with seven other people, actually, around the African world to create academies and venues for heritage performances, integrated performances and the return of native languages, arts and crafts and history. All the things that seem to have been sidelined by, for lack of a better word, the monsters that technology has produced where people have forgotten about the past and are interested in futuristic stuff only. Of course all of those things are basically western-based but the African Diaspora Choir has major content, which is completely invisible. When people come to Africa they come to see the animal geographical wonder because there is no real practising of heritage. I think it’s really important to rectify that because otherwise my grandchildren, when they grow up and they’re asked who they are, they’re only going to be able to say they used to be African long ago.”

Hugh Masekela
Saturday, March 9, 10pm
Botanic Park


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