A chorus of voices singing in work-style unison sets the stage for the first song on Hugh Masekela's new album, No Borders. A growling, funk-laced guitar chimes in before Masekela sings: "I been workin' in your house 500 years / You never give an aboriginal a break." A torrent of orders, presumably from colonizer to colonized, follows: "Dig that hole ... shoot that boy ... shuffle and bow."
It's an intense opening on an album whose title implies a call for unity. But as the South African trumpeter and singer explained via phone, colonization left African communities around the world shackled to belief systems based on false differences. No Borders reflects Masekela's mission to break through those chains, in part by celebrating African cultures and sparking what he believes is much needed self-reflection.
"I don't think I'm trying to be political," Masekela says. "It's just a fact that we've been working in the colonial factory for 500 years, and we still haven't woken up to just how scattered we were by the colonial systems. We're at a point now where we actually believe that our only heritage was primitive and backwater and all these negatives.
"Italians are Italians, Jews are Jews, Irish are Irish, but when it comes to us, either Americans or Jamaicans or Nigerians," he says. "We've been scattered so much — in our brains also — that we don't believe that we are the same people."
That "scattering" has had tangible effects on the pioneering musician's life and career. In a way, it comes full circle at his performances at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. There's a Jazz Epistles reunion with pianist Abdullah Ibrahim on April 26 and a celebration of Louis Armstrong with Dr. Michael White on May 4.
The Ibrahim reunion dates back to 1959, when Masekela and his short-lived but wildly popular sextet, the Jazz Epistles, recorded the first LP by a black South African band, Jazz Epistle Verse 1. A year later, amid resistance to the South African government's apartheid system, 69 protesters were killed in the Sharpeville Massacre. As authorities clamped down, Masekela — along with his former Epistles bandmate Ibrahim (then known as Dollar Brand) and others — left the country.
Masekela studied at New York's Manhattan School of Music. Within a few years, he was recording national hits, including 1968's "Grazing in the Grass." The tune has since been covered by many pop and jazz artists.
Around the same time, Masekela began developing a relationship with New Orleans and its musicians. "I first came to New Orleans in 1968 to play Al Hirt's club," says Masekela, adding that he played Jazz Fest "when it was very small."
Over the years, he ran into White at a few festivals.
"We were both very big fans of Louis Armstrong, so we always talked about doing a Louis Armstrong performance together. I'm very excited that it's coming around. ... If it weren't for Louis Armstrong, the world would still be square and we would probably still be wearing white wigs. He loosen- ed up a very stiff world."
That vote of confidence for Satchmo, however, doesn't mean Masekela sees endeavors like his post-apartheid reunion with Ibrahim or the release of No Borders as having the power to tangibly undo unjust colonial legacies.
"If it could, it would have done it long ago," he says. "You know, Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey, Louis Armstrong were singing about injustice 70, 80 years ago."
None fought a winning battle through music against what Masekela described as "the conspiracy of politics and business," but he does see an answer.
"We need to create places where people can go and study the truth about Africa, the truth about African history, and learn," he says. "Other societies know their history.
"There was a need to make it through many centuries. If we can find out what happened during those centuries, maybe we can find out who we really are."