/ 4 March 2012

Hugh Masekela: ‘I don’t think I have the power to forgive’

Hugh Masekela performing at Les bouffes du Nord theatre
Hugh Masekela performing at Les bouffes du Nord theatre

The South African jazz trumpeter talks to David Smith about the legacy of apartheid, Nelson Mandela and squandering $50m.

Can a non-verbal instrument like a trumpet be political?
No. I don’t think any musician ever thinks about making a statement. I think everybody goes into music loving it. I just came from South Africa, a place that had been in a perpetual uprising since 1653, so the uprising had become a way of life in our culture and we grew up with rallies and strikes and marches and boycotts. Politics was no different to us from how it was to the Irish, except we were fighting real oppression instead of a racial or religious war.

It started in 1653, so I grew up with it and at the time I got international notice I was from South Africa, and my resource was South African music, so it would have been very awkward not to mention the circumstances in whatever I was doing, because I came from those people and I sourced from them. But then by the time it gets translated by editors, scribes, authors, people like yourself, it ends up with a trumpet making speeches in Trafalgar Square. But the trumpet is an inanimate object.

Can you describe what it was like to be a young black man growing up in apartheid South Africa?
By the time we grew up, millions of tricks against the establishment were there in place already. What people don’t know about oppression is that the oppressor works much harder. You always grew up being told you were not smart enough or not fast enough, but we all lived from the time we were children to beat the system.

There was one occasion when the apartheid government tried to invite you back as an “honorary white”. How did that feel?
It was not only insulting, but it was like the height of comedy, right out of the fucking Marx Brothers. The apartheid people were actors and they had to act out their part in their beliefs every day. That’s why we always saw them as being comedic.

Have you forgiven white people in South Africa?
I don’t think I have the power to forgive. I think the most difficult thing that has had to happen in South Africa for the previously disadvantaged communities is they had to reconcile that the oppressor has been enriched and the establishment is now making five or 10 times more profit than they were during the time the economic embargo was on them.

There’s never in history been a people who have ever said to another people: “Hey, sorry we made so much fucking money off your backs. Here’s 500-trillion to show you how sorry we are for enslaving you.”

The inequalities are still there. We’re not being harassed by police at night or being arrested for stupid things, but there are inequalities. And life is not an act, we’re not in a movie.

Do you think the African National Congress has lived up to its promise after 18 years in government?
I don’t think anybody has ever been able to live up to what they promised. I don’t know a government that has ever been successful at that because once they get into power, things change and the world is controlled also by business now. I’m not expecting any miracles.

Corruption is everywhere, man. It’s in England; all those MPs who stole money and lied about their houses. It’s an international malady and there’s no reason why South Africans wouldn’t have done it .

Do you think there will be a traumatising effect for South Africa when Nelson Mandela dies?
Does he have a special magic hold on South Africa, so that everybody will die when he dies? He’s a human being who became who he became because of the people of South Africa. I wish him good health and I hope that he’s not going to be in too much pain.

You’ve said you squandered $50-million over the years?
I’m the kind of person who goes on with life. I was one of the smallest benders of the era. But I’ve gone on with my life. This was more than 40 years ago, you know.

You don’t dwell on the days of taking drugs such as marijuana and cocaine?
No, because I’m not as anal, I guess, as most of the media are. You have to remember I’m self-employed. So the mundane things that the press and people basically occupy themselves with, I’ve no time for. I live a creative life and I have a very happy family life.

Do you have any regrets?
I don’t have anything to regret. I think people who have regrets are people who think they can relive their lives. You only see each day once.

Do you believe in God?
I don’t criticise any people who believe. I don’t believe in organised religion and don’t have time for it because I’m in music all the time. What I do is very spiritual because I do it religiously, 24 hours a day. If there is a God, he should be worshipped as we worship him every day because when we’re not on the road, we’re in the studio.