Blues for Bra Hugh

Battle of the bands: Jonas Gwangwa, Hugh Masekela and Gwigwi Mwrebi at Dorkay House in Johannesburg (Drum/ Baileys Archive)

Battle of the bands: Jonas Gwangwa, Hugh Masekela and Gwigwi Mwrebi at Dorkay House in Johannesburg (Drum/ Baileys Archive)

It is now common coin that the past is never a thing of the past. It is passed down and around like a gourd of beer or any kwaai piece of music. Any history of the tavern (or shebeen, if you want to be old school about it) that is worth the tag has got to start emakhaya. So no, Lewis Nkosi, the “new African” could never be completely “cut adrift from the tribal reserves”.

Even after they left the country, Johnny “Mbizo” Dyani would call out in his Namhlanje: Bayasibiza!/ Bathi masigoduke … siye eAfrika ekhaya, as a reminder to all who were in exile that “home is where the music is”. Few understood this better than Bra Hugh Masekela, from whose 1972 album the latter concept is borrowed.

Bra Hugh is best described as my generation’s beloved “timer”. But listening to his fellow beloved bras eulogise him at the memorial service held in one of his many homes, Alexandra, the picture painted of Bra Hugh was that of a star-child of his generation.

With tears in his eyes, distinguished poet and tsotsi-pan Africanist Bra Don “Zinga” Mattera described how on two occasions he had saved a younger Hughie from knife-wielding fellow tsotsis.

The ever-stylish diva Mam’ Dorothy Masuka finished her speech with the words: “Hamba kahle, mntan’ami,” because Hughie, at just 19 years of age when he left the country for London, was one of the younger members of the generation that in 1966 Nkosi wrote was “currently doing its best to enliven the English nightclub circuit”.

The blurb in the Jacana edition of his autobiography Still Grazing states how, when arriving in New York, Masekela got “adopted by bebop heroes like Dizzy Gillespie”. One thing that Gillespie and Miles Davis in particular impressed on Hughie was the need for him to play some of the music from home so that he could find his own sound and play like himself, which for Davis was the highest form of artistry.

Being the fugitive against genre that he was, Davis’s continuous search for something other than what was already in circulation would inspire Bra Hugh at a time that he describes his career as having “come to a dead end”.

But because Africans are the original avant-gardists (something that Mbizo and Ntate Phillip Tabane both famously stated as fact in the face of the freedom jazz movement of the 1960s and 1970s), Hughie found himself going back to the music of ubungoma, divinity. Henceforth, Bra Hugh made a brand of music I want to call “tsalanang music”.

This socialising music is a new-yet-old take, which would take Bra Hugh to the forefront of the genre known as “African jazz” — as if jazz is not “social music”, as Miles once poignantly called it?

It’s a musical attempt at finding one’s (African) self among other human beings because — if one of Bra Hugh’s post-1994 rants is to be believed — what black people on either side of the Atlantic share is that both “used to be African”. Tsalanang music is the music of the shebeen, which, besides being a “college of music” (as the good people at Chimurenga suggest), is also the best place to socialise.

But is the shebeen still a college of music? I wondered as I sat at Shangri La Bar, also the Masekela family home in Alexandra’s 12th Avenue, a few yards up from the hall where Bra Hugh’s memorial service was held. On a late Friday afternoon, this joint was empty. This came as a surprise, given the historical pattern of social drinking in this country and, indeed, the world over. There was also no music.

But in all honesty, such sights are more commonplace than my solemness suggests. Bemoaning this country’s post-1994 drinking culture, Bra Hugh once made an implicit distinction between contemporary taverns and the shebeens of old. Whereas the latter are known for their warm sociality in the face of prohibition and cold beer halls, many of today’s taverns represent this country’s incorporation into globalised consumerist capitalism. These individualistic “lounges” only serve beers packaged in small quantities, as opposed to the ngudu of old, which allows for sharing.

Bra Hugh’s discography is huge. There are many albums (forget songs) that I am yet to listen to. When news of his death broke, I was listening to his landmark The Promise of a Future for the first time. As social music, it performs many functions, which are sometimes discordant. Whereas songs like Don’t Go Lose it Baby and Nomali do that work of bringing people together at their favourite watering hole (Ma-ouledi, letha amanye amabhiya!), a track like Thanayi has been the soundtrack to many post-1994 weddings (O! Kwa kuhle kwethu!). So, because of this expansiveness, people have a variety of ways in which they can access and remember Bra Hugh.

This can lead to conflicting social memorialisations. This conflict, which I suspect will be an ongoing one, played out at Hughie’s memorial service of all places (I can’t think of a better place) during legendary music promoter Bra Sam Mangwana’s speech. Eish … Bra Sam made the mistake of bringing up what I thought was a funny story of how Bra Hugh missed a show because he was too high. Now, everyone knows about Bra Hugh’s triumph over drug addiction, but most of the elders in attendance found Bra Sam’s story very distasteful and in effect booed him off the stage. Crazy, right? But anyone who has read Bra Hugh’s even crazier autobiography would know that drug and alcohol addiction was a major part of his life.

And because Bra Hugh had done it all (quite literally), he had a way of relating to that youthful spirit of rebellion. This is what I understood to be Bra Sam’s intention with his story. But it was quite obvious that this was not how most of the old folk wanted to remember Hughie. And this makes sense if one thinks about the (justified) moral panic around drugs.

But this repression of Bra Hugh’s rebellious spirit speaks to a general fear that post-1994 South African society has around the figure of the “ungovernable” young black man, which Hughie was at some stage in his life (read the story of his escape into exile as a case in point). As an “urbanised, eager, fast-talking and brash” new African — to borrow from Nkosi again — Bra Hugh represented that which could collapse the apartheid regime.

This situation has not changed one bit in the “post-apartheid” period (believe me, my body remembers). And by repressing the radicality Bra Hugh once represented, the audience (and the whole country in general) in effect robbed young black men in this country of an important lesson that I think Bra Hugh wanted to impart from his life-as-text. That lesson has to do with the importance and radicality of pursuing happiness in the context of what the Afro-pessimists refer to as “social death”. 

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