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Keep calm and jazz things up

breaking barriers: Legendary trumpeter Hugh Masekela believes the local festival circuit is still too segregated and hopes to bring more people together PHOTO: Bafana Mahlangu
breaking barriers: Legendary trumpeter Hugh Masekela believes the local festival circuit is still too segregated and hopes to bring more people together PHOTO: Bafana Mahlangu

HUGH Masekela misses his temper.

It's all thanks to his new lifestyle with sessions of the meditative tai chi he's been doing for 11 years, walking and swimming.

He says the activities have been greatly beneficial. "It centres you. Your concentration and focus become clear.

"But the bad thing about it is that I don't have a temper anymore and I miss my temper. It's just gone. Today you can insult me with my mother and I will just say 'sorry man you must be feeling so bad, what can I do to make you feel better?'," he laughs.

Masekela, the 75-year-old granddaddy of African jazz, is a storyteller of note. I know from his hits Stimela and Market Place, he has always known how to paint a picture with his words and haunting trumpet melodies.

We start our chat with his disclaimer that his late grandmother made him promise in 1982 to always tell people that she knew him first. "You must tell them we taught you how to walk, talk and think and it took us three years for us to show you where the lavatory was. And you lived with us for 17 years and ate more than all of us and never contributed a penny. Tell the story otherwise I will send lightning to wherever you are," he quips.

Masekela, who enjoys world acclaim as a trumpet maestro, secured a place for himself as a jazz great with his hit Grazing in the Grass.

He grew up in KwaGuqa, Witbank, before going to live with his parents in Payneville, Springs, before Alexandra, which he calls the hub of resistance.

After paying respects to the elders we talk about the second edition of the Hugh Masekela Heritage Festival set for November 29 at Soweto's Cricket Oval (Elkah Stadium). Also on the bill are Tsepo Tshola, The Soul Brothers, Beatenberg, Jeremy Loops, Laurie Levine and Josie Field.

"When I left South Africa it was at the end of mutual admiration between ethnic groups, including whites. One of the reasons apartheid came into being was because on weekends whites would fill the townships. It was like a carnival, from 6pm on a Friday and it won't stop until Sunday night. The festival is moulded with that in mind."

He believes the local festival circuit is still too segregated and the Heritage Festival will get people to know each other.

"I've started a foundation with a few friends to bring the presence and visibility of heritage and tradition into our lives.

"We need an institute to have an academy and a spectacle of true rainbow integrated performances. And people can learn languages and talented aged can people share their stories."

We discuss his stance on weaves and not much has changed.

"From an economic perspective we shell out R100-billion a year of hair products to other cultures, and nobody imitates us. African hair is the only one you can sculpt, so we have hundreds of styles, but we leave that to go and do stuff..."

He still will not have pictures taken with women wearing weaves.

"I find it difficult to pose with them because I preach heritage and then I have to be seen with people who don't look like heritage. Secondly, I'm superstitious if you come to me wearing another person's hair and it's a dead person it makes me uncomfortable.

"From a spiritual heritage perspective it feels awkward. I feel bad for them because they wear it with so much pride.

"When Steve Biko spoke about consciousness it was politicised, but it's the same thing."

Masekela has lent his face and name to an insurance company earning the nickname Mr Assupol, thanks to the TV infomercials.

"In the 1960s Harry Belafonte said I should never cheapen myself by doing commercials. Thirty years later he asked me why I wasn't doing them. He said now was the time because I have a name."

Masekela says the partnership has allowed him to interest them in sponsoring some of his projects, including his inaugural lecture at University of Johannesburg.

He is working on an album with Oliver Mtukudzi and a group of mbira players. The next stop will be with Salif Keita in Mali.

Masekela says his plans to honour Miriam Makeba with a musical have been scuppered by those who administer Makeba's Trust.

"To hold the story of who I call the patron saint of African culture at ransom like that is a drag," he says.



For more stories like this one, be sure to buy the Sowetan newspaper from Mondays to Fridays

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