Hugh Masekela, perhaps one of the two most globally popular South African anti-Apartheid activists and outstanding musical legends would have turned 80 today. We revisit this tribute by Novelist Brian Chikwava written in the icon’s memory following his death in January last year.
Hugh Masekela came from a part of the world where, uniquely, folklore paints the railway train as a generator of heartache: it breaks families up, taking away fathers, brothers and lovers never to be seen again. It seems therefore natural that his first recording, Stimela, turned the train trope on its head.
In Stimela, migrant labourers curse when they hear the sound of the train that delivered them to Johannesburg. The recording insists that people had to be dispossessed and their worlds scattered in the wind in order to create the pool of labour that was essential to the gold mines on which white wealth and power were built.
It was only because of their desperate circumstances that the men board stimela, the train that ferries them to Johannesburg, delivering them as migrant labourers at the mercy of the mining industry.
Stimela, remains one of Masekela’s most complete recordings, a moving and powerful anthem against injustice. It became the centrepiece of his later concerts where he would recreate the sounds of the steam train, from its screaming whistle on arrival and departure, its tooting, right through to the percussive motion rhythms as it choo-choos away.
When he came to the London Jazz Festival in November 2010, I contacted the festival organisers, serious, asking for an interview with him. It was a shot in the dark, I expected to hear nothing back.
Nevertheless, clinging on to a faint hope that the interview might come through, I sat down to prepare my line of questioning, wondering what would be the ideal period in Masekela’s life to start the interview. I settled on 1968, the year his Grazing in the Grass topped the US charts, ahead of the Rolling Stones’ Jumping Jack Flash.
Then my mind shifted. I had attended nearly all of Masekela’s London concerts in recent years. During that time, my attention had been drawn to his stage manner, his presence. To see Masekela pacing about the stage, flugelhorn in one hand or just pensively holding a cowbell, was on its own a riveting performance.
It is said of great performers that by their mere presence they change everything around them: it is not just the musical notes that order themselves around such artistes, but everything within their sphere of influence.
It was while he took the final step up to the mic that he turned on the charisma to full. A transformation occurred, and at once, he would be clowning about, trying to goad the audience into delinquent displays, letting Londoners know that he was not going to be fooled by their pretending to be impeccably behaved.
“I know you’re a noisy bunch, you!”
It was this transformation that fascinated me. It was also something that is seemed impossible to interview anyone about because that is an attempt to get at their core.
On the night before I was due to meet him, he performed at the Royal Festival Hall where he joked about the bureaucratic restrictions the Apartheid regime used to impose on natives wanting to travel from one part of S. Africa to another.
“When your papers were in order, there was nothing sweeter than walking up to a policeman and saying, ‘Do you want to see my papers?’” he said.
My request for an interview had just been granted – it was to take place after the show. Throughout the show I wished I had not bothered. The 20 minute slot that I had been given seemed risible. I had envisaged a conversation, not a clunky interrogation framed by a list of static questions.
I was also nervous about which Masekela I was going to meet: the imposing, formidable figure or the joker? I also knew a producer at the BBC World Service who had been left bruised after a brush with Masekela.
Apparently he could be a wonderful interviewee but could also be willful or even combative if he decided otherwise. Not the sort of person to bother with a silly list of questions that I had briefly toyed with.
At the time I did not know that two years earlier he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
When I arrived at his hotel suite I apologised for the vulgar approach that I was about to inflict on him and even tried to displace some of the blame onto the festival organisers: “Your people gave me a 20 minute slot,” I said, a careless choice of words that I immediately regretted.
He did not answer, rubbed his face with one hand as if ridding his eyes of sleep. A spasm crossed his face as he directed his gaze down at the floor and then out of the window.
When at last he had gathered his thoughts, he spoke. How long had it been since I left Zimbabwe?
“Eight years,” I said. I was resigned to being shot down in flames.
“I went to study in the US and ended up spending 24 more years away from home than I intended,” he said. I let him speak without interruption, having carelessly surrendered the initiative.
After ten minutes, during which he probed how and why I had ended up in London, a pattern began to emerge: for every piece of information I gave away about my life, he would draw a parallel by sharing something about himself.
My phone was showing that half my allotted time was already gone, and the interview had not even begun. I did not have the antennae of a journalist and had failed to recognise the value of what was unfolding. Caged by the guileless mindset of a square literary editor, I was still waiting to commence the interview.
Two hours later I walked out of his hotel suite, by which time Masekela was in full on prank mode: having seen me out of his door he immediately started playing peekaboo. As I walked down the corridor I would hear my name being called and would turn around only to find emptiness. One, two, three, four times this repeated and only once did I catch his head snapping back into the doorway.
This was enough to sow suspicions that I had been played for the duration of the interview. Missed a hide and seek game unfolding right under my nose? The star struck have such limitations.
Throughout our conversation, it had been evident that he preferred to pass himself off as just a trouble maker with no political agenda other than fun or mischief. Someone who enjoyed “crazy s**t!,” as he called it. Like the 18 hour long concerts when he joined Fela Kuti’s band and they toured through Ghana.
I left the hotel and picked my way to Pimlico tube station, going over the past couple of hours of much laughter. I was unsure how much weight to attach to the political Masekela vs the musical Masekela, especially as he had disavowed his role in the anti-apartheid movement as “just kowtowing” to his ex-wife Miriam (Makeba) because “she was the revolutionary one, was involved with revolutionary movements.”
Pressed on this he pivoted and ascribed his political life to someone else again: Harry Belafonte, who had helped him come over to the US.
“Belafonte said, man, if you are successful and you don’t use your success to talk about your country, then you’re not going to have a good life. You can’t just concentrate on music.”
Yet he had not entirely succeeded in being self effacing about his political roots. When it came to miners, he suddenly struck a more earnest note. Having grown up with migrant labourers, regulars at his grandmother’s house, which was a shebeen (unofficial bar), the mining community was clearly the genesis of the political perspectives that would later inform his music.
He was dismissive of the idea that there had been any change in the material conditions of the miners in the new democratic South Africa. Africans across the continent fought for freedom and sacrificed a lot, he said, but got silly rewards such as the once fashionable notion of African authenticity.
“Like the freedom to change your name from Joseph-Désiré Mobutu to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga!” he said theatrically and we’d both laughed.
It was inevitable that he was going to express disappointment with the South African leadership: they had failed to come up with a progressive sequel to the anti-apartheid struggle. They had given themselves over to the established world and as a result, South African society remained structurally unreformed.
Coming out of Brixton tube station I almost laughed out loud, recalling his response when I gave him a copy of my book: “I’m also writing a novel. An African thriller!”
He planned to self-publish because he had not liked the editorial vandalism that was visited on his autobiography. Having kept the material that was edited out of the autobiography, he had decided to work it out into a novel. He had even been approached by people eager to help and several times he had replied: “I won’t let you f**k up my book, so I’m not going to let you touch my s**t!”
We had laughed again here, but for different reasons. I could not take this one literary but as just another Bra Masekela way of saying he understands the kind of battles you face.
Hugh Masekela Playlist
Brian Chikwava is the Winner of the 2004 Caine Prize. His Harare North was published by Jonathan Cape in 2009. A French translation was published by Editions Zoe in 2011.