To hear the sheer joy in the music created by South African jazz pioneer Hugh Masekela over the last half-century -- whether it's in his breezy, late-1960s hit single "Grazing in the Grass," the resilience expressed by a cast of schoolchildren singing his "freedom songs" written for the 1988 Broadway musical, Sarafina, or in the buoyancy his flugelhorn playing added to Paul Simon's "Graceland" tour -- it all sounds so unfettered and so happy that it's sometimes hard to remember much of it was borne of a desperate struggle for freedom from a government-mandated hatred of black Africans.
But New Orleanians in particular should be able to appreciate that paradox -- that the vibrancy of a culture, whether by design or benign neglect, can sometimes be used to mask the suffering of the same people who produce it.
That joyousness is partly why Masekela today is celebrated both as a world-class musician and as his country's unofficial cultural ambassador, a title he fervently resists. (The official title belongs to his sister Barbara, who was appointed Ambassador of the Republic of South Africa by then-President Nelson Mandela in 1995.)
"I think even if I was a garbage man, I would have been involved in that struggle," Masekela says during a recent phone interview. "I find it very unnatural to come from a place or society that is oppressed and not partake in that. It's just that I had media attention, so I was stuck with that label of ambassador."
Media attention was paid to Masekela at a young age, thanks in part to Louis Armstrong, who, upon hearing of his township brass band, sent one of his horns for him to play. The gesture put the group on the front pages of the white-owned daily newspapers -- a first for black Africans. By then Masekela had already been seduced by American jazz -- Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Nat "King" Cole, Johnny Hodges, Frank Sinatra, they were all brought into his home via the gramophone from the time he was 3 years old.
"I thought there were little people living in there," he says. "I wanted to live in there with them, because I wanted to make music."
The chance to study music moved him to seek exile in the West in 1960. While he was quickly ensconced in America's jazz royalty, he was drawn to bebop in particular. "I wanted to be one of Art Blakey's Jazz Passengers," he says. "But [Blakey] was one of the people who told me, 'Why don't you play some of the music from your home, bring some of that here? That way we can both learn.'"
Taking their advice, Masekela fused post-bop American jazz with the township sounds and protest music of his home, and became a driving force behind "world music" long before it was a commercial category.
"I think eventually I would have come back to South Africa anyway," he says. "But I was definitely pointed in that direction."
Since returning to South Africa in 1991, after 30 years of exile, Masekela has become increasingly involved in business ventures, working as both a producer and publisher of music, films and, most recently, books. He is currently writing his second novel -- a cross-cultural contemporary thriller -- which he plans to publish himself. And though he talks of eventually retiring as a performer, he'll always be involved with music in some capacity. "Culture is the only thing people have that can't be taken away from them," he says. "But any kind of culture, for it to burgeon, it has to be financed."
On last year's Revival (Heads Up), Masekela was careful to invite collaborations from several South Africans representing both traditional ethnic styles as well as the more contemporary Kweito, or African rap. Although a few of the tracks are too smooth to really grab hold of, at its most exciting, Revival bounces back to the township jive music and chanting vocal harmonies heard in his earlier recordings.
During last year's Jazz Fest performance, Masekela seemed every bit the elder statesman as he recalled with evident fondness how he'd been welcomed as a part of the American music community from the start. "I really don't think about myself as coming from overseas, because I've played here from the beginning."
There's a holy silence that sometimes happens at the start of highly anticipated Jazz Fest performances when, despite the thousands of sweaty bodies being pressed together inside a tent, you can hear people listening with their whole body. I heard it last year during Masekela's performance, and I imagine it's a little bit like how he pictured life would be, living inside his gramophone.
- "Culture is the only thing people have that can't be taken away from them," says South African flugelhorn player Hugh Masekela. "But any kind of culture, for it to burgeon, it has to be financed."