It was the morning of his passing and I had overslept for the first time in a long while.
I am always up with the sunrise, no matter how late I got to bed. But on this day, I lay there dreaming as my partner Anokhi left the bed, turned off the alarm, had a shower and got fully dressed.
I lay there dreaming that a meteorite had crashed into someone’s grave. Why would a meteorite crash into somebody’s grave? Whose grave is it?
As I floated around in my dream state, trying to make sense of this, Anokhi jolted me out of it and gently said: “Baby, Uncle Hugh passed away.” He had slipped away in the dead of night like a note on his trumpet.
Funny that I was waking up from a meteorite that had crashed into a grave. Funny, also, that the day before, I had sent him a message telling him that I love him and honour him. The universe works in mysterious ways.
I met Bra Hugh when I was about 14 or 15 years old. His daughter Pula had come to our school and suddenly, he became one of the dads who would sometimes hang out around the schoolyard.
One day we were told that he wanted to meet with the choir, to chat to us about music. I was head of the choir and was basically killing it on that front by high school standards. I had co-directed the school version of the play Meadowlands and we had learned a lot of music from Kofifi, so I was excited to be meeting someone who grew up in that time.
He had such an air about him, something that excited everyone around him. From the moment I met him, I was enthralled. He was mischievous and I saw something of myself in him. I mean, my English teacher would always hit me on the back of the head when he saw me because he said: “You have the look of someone who will soon get into some kind of mischief, so I’m beating you in advance.”
Uncle Hugh possessed something that made him feel like a kindred spirit, even though he was more than 30 years older than me. That day, he watched critically as we, the choir, performed some songs for him and, in what I came to know as true Bra Hugh form, he offered us a gig as his backup crew for an upcoming show he was doing at the old Indaba Hotel. He seemed so impressed with us and especially with me. The first song I ever learned from him, in a long list of songs he would later teach me, was Bajabula Bonke.
I didn’t know it then, but this was the beginning of my artistic identity. I wanted to be like him; I wanted to know all his music.
I had made such an impression on Bra Hugh at that rehearsal that he offered me a slot to do a duet with him on the night of the concert. I never did that concert because when I arrived at the venue, I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere and what I felt was an adult space. One day I will tell you that story.
Fast forward a few years and I’m at university, periodically hanging out at Kippies to marvel at all the amazing artists that performed there. I mean, everyone played there! It was a historic club in the long tradition of venues like Dorkay House or township halls that always housed only the finest in African jazz. Kippies was the last one standing. It has since shut down, which I think is an incredible shame for the culture of live music in Jozi.
I would go there to watch anyone from Sibongile Khumalo to Andile Yenana. We would hang out late into the night, talking jazz and politics with strangers I met there, and sometimes I would bump into the extremely mischievous duo of Tsepo Tshola and Hugh Masekela at an after-hours club called Polly Polly in Yeoville where they would drink and pick up women.
I was fascinated and watched them like a child watches its mother’s face. I was in awe of their creative light and their hedonism.
Hugh also ran a club at Piccadilly Square in Yeoville where, on any given night, one could watch him and his band play. I would go there at least once a week and stand right in front, screaming and totally fangirling. I remember one day, Uncle Hugh was performing Ha le se le li khanna and I nearly fell over as he went into the chorus line: He bare jekere jekere jekere/ Hey, what you doin to me mama?/ Kgomo tse ke tsa boha a! — with that customary pelvic thrust.
All the women in the room were falling over and Bra Hugh looked straight at me and said: “What are you doing here?” I was young and hanging around in adult spaces because I really loved music and couldn’t stay away from any place with live music.
Later. It was the early years with Bongo Maffin and we had just dropped the Makeba remix that endeared us to our people and the elders because it was a song they had loved in their youth. When that song became a big hit, I began to think more deeply about what kind of musician I wanted to be because suddenly, we were being put in spaces with Mama Miriam Makeba and other older musicians were starting to pay attention to us. They often told me I made them “nostalgic for Kofifi”.
Uncle Hugh became my “industry dad” and, over the years, gave me amazing advice and showed unflinching faith in my gift.
Songs with Bra Hugh
Thanayi* (Sixty, 2000)
I had always been an outspoken and bold young person who somehow was always forward enough to seem brave, and on this occasion I saw Bra Hugh walking in Newtown, which was abuzz with musicians and artists then. I shouted from across the road: “Hi, Bra Hugh. So when are you gonna feature me?” To which he answered as he walked on by: “Why not now? I’m in studio working on an album, so come over tomorrow.”
The following day, I went to the studio and for the first time (and probably last time) I did exactly as I was told. It was my first time in a really big studio with accomplished musicians all around me. Bra Hugh directed everything and I’m glad I listened, because it became one of South Africa’s favourite collaborations.
* We let the fat-shaming slide though and that wasn’t cool.
Mgewundini (Sixty, 2000)
This was my personal favourite and it never really got any traction, but I learned that Uncle Hugh had done it before with Mama Miriam, so I felt incredibly honoured to be doing it with him. I was young and not completely aware of the grandeur of that moment. But I was raised to honour and respect my elders, and the fact that Bra Hugh had taken this chance on me on such a whim was mind-blowing.
I was determined to learn as much as I could. I’m a sponge and I absorb things easily, especially sound.
After those sessions, Bra Hugh wrote me a letter that would inform my entire career and how I have come to understand my gift. In it he wrote: “Remember to keep your humour and humility. You have the potential to become an important voice in your generation, so respect your gift. Never listen to those who praise you, because they will give you a big head. Never listen to those who discourage you, they will make you walk with your head hung low.”
He reiterated this message many times over the years. He and his generation of musicians instilled in me the idea that music had to be about an honest telling of one’s story and a celebration of who we are in the face of a history that seeks to erode us and all that we own both physically and spiritually.
Ingoma (Ibokwe, 2009)
A few years later, in 2009, I would invite him to the studio to listen and give advice on my second solo album, Ibokwe, which was about 80% done at the time. He listened attentively and, after hearing Ingoma, looked up at me and said: “So when can I bring my trumpet?” I was in such awe that I don’t even think I have a picture from that session. It was so magical, all I managed to do was to ask him if he wanted to do another take.
Bra Hugh conjured my name in many conversations with people who would later come up to me to say: “He loves you so much.” He had such incredible faith in my gift. He would often joke and say: “Miriam created me. She taught me all the songs I sing and showed me all the ropes,” and I would say the same for him, that he created me.
He taught me so many songs and dragged me along with him to prestigious festivals around the world. Bra Hugh was the reason I got to do the Graceland reunion tour with greats like Barney Rachabane, Ray Phiri, Bakithi Kumalo, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon.
He was always curious and fun to hang out with. When we were together it was fine music, fine wine and fine women. Wherever we went in the world, people recognised him and he was gracious with them, but he was the first artist I ever saw who would talk shit to the audience.
At his club in Yeoville, he would often throw someone out or stop playing if somebody lit a cigarette (this is before there was a law against smoking indoors). I have seen Uncle Hugh shout at South Africans abroad for rightfully wanting to sing every note of his hit Stimela, including the trumpet lines and woo woooooos! He would say: “Thulani man! Nimoshela abanye abantwana ishow.”
I learned a lot of things from him, such as the importance of laughter: Bra Hugh laughed until tears rolled down his cheeks. But the most important thing I learned from him is the importance of sharing your gifts and giving love authentically to the world.
His passing makes it startlingly obvious that we have little time left and we must learn what we can from our elders, give all the love we can to them and humble ourselves at their feet to preserve our music, stories and traditions. There is no greater gift to the youth than the wisdom of the old.
Check out soundcloud.com/mma-tseleng/so-sentimental/s-zGKSh