The night Hugh Masekela died, a blanket of indigo sky hung morosely over his hometown of Johannesburg. Then a vigil of a drizzle showered the city from above. The aftermath of the morning we woke up to news that those closest to him have been expecting all summer.
Hugh Masekela is, what, dead. What do you mean he is dead?
As though he was cut from an alien skin-cloth from the rest of us. A horn alchemist from Witbank, Alex, Springs via Pandora land where the mystical natives wear natural blue-green skins.
In a way he was. He was also a flesh and blood person like you and me.
See it’s not like we weren’t expecting it. Cause baby, we were. At least in my own stupid little God-figurine games, I had put his departure date at the end of June. Those closest to him knew better. His sister — a former diplomat and an incredibly beautiful writer — Barbara Masekela told the audience at the Soweto memorial gig, “My brother was a fighter, he truly believed he would recover and live forever!” She suppressed a naughty chuckle cognisant of the no-die spirit her bruh was possessed of.
I had settled on a later date simply because, knowing Uncle Hughie, I believed and trusted in his fortitude. But also I didn’t see his death coming, mainly for selfish reasons. Because I felt I needed to be better prepared.
But death never prepares anyone. Not even family. It might send us some signals, but no one knows for sure when the dark ripper will come knocking.
A mutual pal, artist Thandiswa Mazwai, told me of a dream she had the night before we all woke to news of Hughie’s departure.
“I had a vision of a meteor flashing fast and descending into an open grave. It was not clear whose grave it is. It was such a weird experience. I can’t say for sure it had anything to do with uBra Hugh.”
Me neither, King Tha.
And yet about this I’m certain: his death gorges at the soul mostly because Hughie was simply not the dying type. He was omnipresent. He packed several lives and energies in one physical body.
At his prime, as in during early stages of the recurrent cancer, it felt as if he was living for himself and others — especially his dearly departed friends, kindred souls and mavericks collected across the many dots and zip codes he ever lived, played or passed through: Spokes Mashiyane, Kippie Moeketsi, Todd Matshikiza, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Jeff Hoojah, Mal Waldron, Lady Day, Dudu Pukwana, Brenda Fassie, Sophie Mgcina and his ultimate love spirit that he could neither possess nor tame, Zenzi Miriam Makeba.
“Man boy of the ages,” was how the recently departed Keorapetse “Willie” Kgositsile, another of his friends on a 50-year cultural and political sojourn across the globe, famously praised him.
We need not be swept by the mere musicality of the words, although lyricism itself is a reservoir of our deepest feelings, thus the language of our lived philosophies. Musicality can never be just “mere”. But stay close to meaning “of the ages”. Not of the past age. Neither of the present age. “Man boy of the ages.” Timeless. Like the air we breathe.
And yet he was not just a man but an adult who lived with inner child and an inner chi just bubbling under his skin.
Hughie is gone, you say. I say: Where to? Let him go. He will be back.
I can’t believe it. Because he was such a permanent presence in his and our lives. He was everywhere. In his music. In the news. On the telly.
He called out and made fun of the black kleptomaniacs in political power. He loved Nelson Mandela and had a prophetic song about his coming out of the dungeons to lead us. Yet he critiqued the halo around Mandela.
He called out black sisters who are within their rights to wear weaves as they wish. Hughie said fine but I have a right not to pose for a selfie with you. They sulked and wrote feminist screeds. He laughed and went home to practise the horn.
And when he was in that zone no one could distract him. Had Jesus Christ or Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) called or WhatsApped during Hughie’s daily practice ritual, honey, trust me, they too would have had to wait till he emerged from his séance.
Wait a bit, you tell me Hughie is gone? I’m stumped for words.
I referred to him as Hughskie, which is the nickname given to him by soul icon Marvin Gaye. And he referred to me as “Die Dondiez”. He was a soul of immense presence and a dynamic social and cultural prophet.
Prophets are not perfect. He was not perfect. And yet he was among the best Mzansi, the continent and the universe has gifted humanity.
Sometimes I’d love to contradict Kgositsile and posit that Hughskie was a man of his era yet I’m unable to. Primarily because it is from his perch of yesteryear that his inner binoculars peered into the future. Thus he was a futurist — a seer.
Although intensely private, Hughskie knew how to share himself with the people who loved his art and those who didn’t. It’s a social and psychic spirit he imbibed by osmosis, growing up at No 76 Tolman Street, KwaGuqa township, under the tough-love tutelage of his shebeen Gogo, Johanna Bowers, née Mabena.
Grandma’s joint was frequented by miners who loved to sing to drown their blues or to fight to bring about new sets of blues. But Johanna would not take that. “She’d beat the shit out of everyone.” The fine line between love and tough skins sculpted the person Hughskie would become: selfless and generous in spirit, with his time and wisdom. And yet, he suffered no fools.
With his music, off-cuff public commentary and writing (he was a beautiful raconteur), his anti-narcotics campaigns, he raised not only a nation but the world.
It takes no genius to observe that his departure reverberated, and will still be beamed, from mountain tops in as disparate places as Gugulethu and Beijing, Jozi and straight outta Compton, Harare and Pyongyang.
His name is emblazoned in neon atop the iconic black musical cultural mecca, the Apollo Theatre on Broadway Avenue, uptown New York. Life is cyclical. The Apollo is where Masekela once worked, pressed self-destruction buttons, ran with the hounds, the Afristocrats and Afristo-cats (ya dig?), a place we can safely, within our spaces, refer to as “Negroland”.
This week’s Friday gives succour to all those still traumatised and those celebrating the 18 lives of that cat called Hugh.
Rejoice in the repertoire he leaves behind. Please stay with us during this our libations.
Bongani Madondo was a consulting editor for this special edition of Friday