Farewell to my childhood

Early days: A young Hugh Masekela with Lionel Pillay on piano rehearsing in the early 1960s (Drum photographer/ Baileys Archives)

Early days: A young Hugh Masekela with Lionel Pillay on piano rehearsing in the early 1960s (Drum photographer/ Baileys Archives)

It’s hard for me to talk about jazz without talking about my father or contrasting the music to growing up ekasi.

Of the many albums my dad played over and over again, Hugh Masekela’s Black to the Future was a staple in our house. Boasting classics such as Khawuleza, The Boys Doin’ It and Strawberries, this was an album that found itself as the soundtrack to everything from Saturday spring clean sessions to Codesa dance routines emcimbini.

When I started to fall in love with jazz my mother and aunt would tell me about a family friend named Khaya Mahlangu, a saxophonist, and almost as though it was a direct association, my mom would say, “He’s played with Hugh Masekela and Busi Mhlongo.”

The two hornmen’s alliance and friendship is something I’d witnessed many times watching recordings of Bra Hugh and live shows.
Unapologetically African, both men would often be clad in dashikis, unlike the formally dressed musicians I’d watched in big bands and ensembles that Hollywood had prescribed as the face of jazz.

Here was a different version of jazz that I could not only relate to but that I had grown up with, a sound so intrinsically a part of my upbringing in a township it was part of my heritage.

That bellowing but sharp voice and it’s accompanying trumpet notes was accessible to me, to my pantsula father and a conservative Christian mother.

Beyond but still through his music Bra Hugh provided a portal into history.

Those of us born at the dawn of South Africa’s liberation were able to be sonically transported into a world where the injustices and inequalities of apartheid were still very real. A balm for the blues of the time, Bra Hugh’s music was for listening not just hearing, it was for thinking, for action and now for remembering and learning.

At the recent Hugh Masekela Heritage Festival, despite the announcement that Bra Hugh had pulled out of the festival because of ill health, after seeing Oliver Mtukudzi, a selfish yearning to see him on that stage developed.

I could already see him coming on to the stage just as he had for the past three years — flugelhorn hanging over his arm, doing that infamous get-down, ringing his cow bell and belting that echoing and onomatopoeic “chooo-chooo” from the crowd favourite Stimela.

It was ritual, the show could not end without him. But it did. He didn’t make his way to the stage and for a moment I felt afraid, worried that he might never come back on to that stage, and I was right.

I got to work last week Tuesday, tired and already over the day. There was an alarming number of missed calls on my phone and two texts that both read “Have you heard?”

Bra Hugh had ascended and the fear that I felt that night at the Heritage Festival returned. We would never see him perform ever again. That voice, that distinct voice full of charm and realness was gone. But there was still music, so much music, enough music to heal us and teach us for lifetimes to come.

Hugh Masekela loved black people. He loved us loudly and unashamedly. He loved us with humour and with fierceness.

His was a jazz that filled world stages and humble homes, a jazz that spoke of us and to us. Thank you for giving us so many years, for being a refuge for young and old, for reminding us who we are and showing us the magic of ubuntsundu.

Rest in eternal, musical peace, Bra Hugh. 

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