Hugh Masekela – 75 and counting

Trumpeter, composer, lyricist, singer, bandleader, father and struggle activist – Hugh Masekela has garnered many titles under his belt so far. But after seeing him celebrate his 75th birthday with a performance at New York City's Jazz at Lincoln Centre, it's clear the two-time Grammy-nominated artist isn't slowing down the momentum of his life's work just yet. 

His two shows in New York recently, where he celebrated his milestone birthday, highlight the success he's enjoyed overseas, where he brought the music of South Africa to many fans. Being in exile for 30 years, a great deal of that time was spent in the Big Apple in the company of the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and it shaped the man he became and the music he has made. 

He's not nostalgic about it, though. Masekela says there's no looking back, thinking over times gone by. "I don't walk these streets, thinking, 'oh this is where I first saw so-and-so'," he tells me, moments after blowing out the candles on a cake the South African Consulate General in New York has organised for him. "I'm not sentimental like that." His gaze ever fixed ahead, Masekela, affectionately "Bra Hugh", has a packed schedule for the rest of his 75th year – tour dates in Europe, Nigeria, Cuba, Trinidad and an artist residency at Howard University in DC, plus a new album to add to the 40-odd he's already released.

But New York audiences still very much revere the musician who once lived among them. Upon leaving South Africa at the age of 21, it was to New York that Masekela headed, after a brief time in London. It was in New York where he studied jazz at the Manhattan School of Music. And it was in New York where he was encouraged by Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong to hone a unique Afro-jazz sound. So it was fitting that he marked his 75th birthday with a show at Jazz at the Lincoln Centre near Columbus Circle on an early Spring evening. 

The city reflects the greater admiration Masekela enjoys here in the US. During the weekend of US President Barack Obama's re-inauguration in 2013, he was honoured with the Keeper of the Flame award from the African American Churches in DC. A few weeks later, he was up for his second Grammy nomination in the best world music category, but lost out to a posthumous Ravi Shankar record. He tours in the country often, and is due back in June to perform for a charity fundraiser. 

His vitality – in life as much as it is on stage – has often been noted and Masekela says he owes much of that to the practice of a Chinese martial art. "I feel great!" he says. "I feel this way thanks to exercise, especially Tai Chi," he adds. When asked to talk further about the secret behind his longevity, Masekela advises: "Try and eat well. Avoid the things you like," he jokes. "But seriously, I recommend laughing. Try and laugh every day."

Masekela is currently promoting his most recent album Friends, which he made with American jazz pianist Larry Willis, the first artist he says he ever recorded with in New York. Next up is From Siparia to Soweto, an album he made with a young pan group from Trinidad, called Deltones, which is due out in June. 

Honours and awards have been aplenty during his lifetime but Masekela says he's still guided by the voice of his late grandmother, who raised him. "She said it very plain. She said, 'Listen, you lived in our house for free for more than 17 years. You ate more than us. We clothed you. We fed you. We looked after you. And we exposed you to everything that you heard, and if you don't know the people you come from them you won't go anywhere'."

"She made me think she'd throw lightning at me because I shouldn't think I'm more important than anyone else," he says. "I'm still terrified of her."


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