Never work with children, artists are often advised — but no one seems to have told Hugh Masekela. The 65-year-old South African trumpeter, singer and composer is in London rehearsing with a children’s choir from four inner-city boroughs and 20-odd schools for a concert alongside Jazz Jamaica.
It isn’t the first time: he has attempted a similar venture at New York’s Carnegie Hall and in China, setting some of his most engaging Afro-pop songs against the backdrop of children’s voices.
”I always find it inspirational to work with kids,” he says. ”I first got interested in music when I was four. I still hear music with the perspective of a child.”
Critics might say that has been Masekela’s problem, too. He is one of the most famous musicians to have emerged from South Africa in the bloody years of apartheid, selling four million singles when he knocked the Rolling Stones’s Jumping Jack Flash off the top of the charts with Grazing in the Grass in 1968.
A warm-toned, fluid instrumentalist with glowing strands of Miles Davis and Clifford Brown running through his sound, he has written music that can be playful, but sometimes — particularly during his exiled years in California in the 1960s and 1970s — forgettable. When he plays jazz-funk, he sounds less like Davis and more like an African Herb Alpert.
At his best, though, Masekela has combined the catchiest hooks of good pop songs with the dancing rhythms of township jazz and the subtle communal sonorities of African vocal music. When enslavement added urgency to the lyrics (”Let me die in this hole, let me dig this gold that’s not mine”), the mix took on a fierce sting.
Success never stopped him being a trenchant critic of the apartheid regime; a romantic about the power of music, he finally danced victory before the world when he played at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration.
Masekela was born in Witbank, near Johannesburg, on April 4 1939. American influences mingled with kwela and marabi dance idioms. Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani and Basil Coetzee came out of that world. So did Masekela, encouraged by the British priest Trevor Huddleston, and given a trumpet of Louis Armstrong’s to reward his youthful enthusiasm.
He was a co-founder of the Jazz Epistles, the first black South African jazz band to record an album. However, like many of his fellow musicians, he left his birthplace as apartheid grew more ruthless in the early 1960s, with bans on black assemblies effectively stifling the music scene.
He went briefly to Britain to study at the Guildhall School of Music, then went to the United States, sponsored by his wife, the celebrated singer Miriam Makeba. Embraced by the American jazz scene, Masekela seemed able to escape his oppressors and start a new life. But it wasn’t that easy.
”Of course, it was wonderful to go to the States — we had been crazy about American jazz when I was growing up. But there was no comfort zone in exile. You couldn’t cast off South Africa’s bindings. Every time you read the news you were filled with sadness, anger and desire for vengeance. South Africa was relentless, it didn’t stop, it just escalated.”
And the more successful he and other exiles became, the less he could escape his home country.
”Our successes had the effect of making our own culture visible to the government,” he says. ”For a while they were pleased to use the talent of the oppressed people to say, ‘Look at our boys and girls’ — they didn’t call us men and women — ‘look at Miriam, Abdullah, Masekela, how can we be that bad?’
”But through it they were getting to know our group strengths — and, of course, our Achilles’ heels.
”These are the beginnings of genocide. First you go for the cultural genocide. When people’s culture has been destroyed, they don’t have knowledge of self.
”Then, in a country with an advanced infrastructure, like South Africa, it’s easy to put a media structure together to brainwash people and make them lose esteem for that which they naturally are.”
Masekela and his contemporaries kept on reminding their people, and the world, of what they naturally were.
With Fela Ransome Kuti’s help in the African group Hedzoleh Soundz, the trumpeter evolved the African jazz-pop hybrid that made him a star. It was not until 1991 and the beginnings of transformation in South Africa that he finally returned.
Now his dream is ”to travel through Central and Southern Africa listening to its traditional music, learn some of it, then put together spectacular shows that could tour the world.
”Africa is so diverse, it’s mind-boggling. If we could do this, then businesses might get interested in selling Africa to the world through more than just its animals.”
This mission, combined with the turmoils and triumphs of his life and his passionate music, make him an inspiration.
Richard Frostick, director of the Islington Music Centre in London, in charge of the children’s choir, says the kids are ”fascinated” by the trumpeter.
”He will sing something to the children and expect them to sing it right back — but he never patronises them, so what he’s asking them to do doesn’t seem like hard work.”
Jazz Jamaica’s musicians are no less impressed. ”He commands respect because of everything he’s done,” says bassist Gary Crosby, ”but he still feels like a bigger brother to us, an older, wiser head.”
Jazz Jamaica formed a fruitful relationship with Masekela after an impromptu performance at last year’s BBC jazz awards.
Since then, when Masekela is in London he attends their Sunday jams at the Jazz CafÃ© — sessions that have brought out a fluent, spontaneous inventiveness in the trumpeter, often sidelined in the past by his riffy, groove-based popular work.
”If people haven’t heard him as the great soloist he can be, maybe it’s because he doesn’t have a big ego,” says Crosby. ”Maybe people who really make a mark as soloists need one.”
Saxophonist Jason Yarde, the arranger who has been expanding Masekela’s music into big-band scores for Jazz Jamaica, agrees.
”We did a seminar with him recently and somebody asked him, ‘When did you learn the trumpet?’ He said, ‘I haven’t learned it yet.’
”He feels music is a communal thing, that people at all levels make it together. That’s how he grew up with it.” — Ã‚