The Horn of Africa

The phrase "world music," thanks to Paul Simon's groundbreaking Graceland album and tour utilizing the talents of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, conjures images of musical South Africa. For those old enough, it also recalls the lilting horn line from a 1968 world-music smash called "Grazin' in the Grass." In each case, the South African world beat resounds with the energy of one man, Hugh Masekela, who helped Simon recruit musicians for the Graceland project and also was the horn player who recorded "Grazin'." In the interim, the jazz-based trumpeter worked on musical, theatrical and political projects too profuse to list, but connecting him over the years with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Nelson Mandela.

Three and a half years ago, Masekela ended almost 30 years of self-exile from his South African homeland. More recently he recorded Hope, a live reprise of his greatest hits that marked the first time in over three decades heÕd been able to work exclusively with South African musicians.

Masekela is currently in the midst of a 16-city U.S. tour, with ex-wife and fellow South African musical legend Miriam Makeba, that brings him to Houston's Bayou City Theatre April 19 before concluding with an April 22 appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. I spoke with Masekela from his Seattle hotel room about his music and his homeland.

Press: What can you tell me about the musical environment in South Africa today?

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Masekela: When you have an environment of that much violence, then people don't go out to shows anymore. The violence was brought to the townships in the 1960s. Since then, we've been basically an occupied people. Surrogate sort of phantom kingdoms, based on confiscation of people's lands and ethnic grouping and all that, have caused all this conflict now. The government of South Africa, the white establishment, won't admit the legacy that they have brought to the country. Today they try to blame everything on black people. Kings donÕt want to give up their kingdoms, and it has caused major conflict. It has killed music, it has killed recreation and it has killed the social fabric.

You can't be an up-and-coming musician if you have nowhere to practice your musicianship. It's completely dormant. When I grew up, our spawning grounds were the townships, and in these times they are no-go areas. So it's dead. It's completely dead.... All of African music is in exile.

Why did you decide, after all those years, to return to South Africa?
I'm from there, I'm not from here. It's my home. Everything that I am I owe to the people in South Africa, so I have a big debt to pay. I have to take back whatever I can in the way of education and talent development and actually helping to start an infrastructure that will make it possible for us to function at home, where we can have our own industry. And also to bring back the peace.

ith free elections coming up, do you see any signs of that situation turning itself around?

Turn around? Like in a movie? In the movies 50 years takes one and a half hours. That's how much time we'll need. A lot of destruction has been brought upon that place, and the effects are just beginning now.

The government isn't going to try too hard, they're going to do a halfhearted job on turning it around, because every bad perspective they can show of the African population is advantageous to them so they can keep some of the power they had. The slogan of the government is that they took apartheid away, and that they are more reliable than the Africans who are fighting each other.

The media looks at South Africa from the bleachers of the Coliseum -- the lions and the gladiators and shit -- but they don't actually go to the cages to see what is happening. I think the eventual will of the people is to have a free and peaceful country, and I think that will prevail. It won't prevail tomorrow, but it will eventually come around. We've seen un-collapsible kingdoms fall.

South African music is traditionally more politically oriented than American pop music...

Well, we don't have our heads in the sand. Music in South Africa is our literature. It can change people, even politicians, like Bob Dylan and Bob Marley have done. It keeps reminding people, that's all.

What's your perspective on the relative popularity of South African music here in the U.S.?

South African music is greatly influenced by African-American music. We had Dixieland bands, we had swing bands, we had minstrels, ragtime bands. The African-Americans are basically our role models for modern urban life. South Africa is a rich place. All the carpetbaggers and all the hustlers came there with their Victrolas, but we had more time to play the records, because we worked in the kitchen....

South Africa was so consumed with jazz. We had our own heroes and our own idols, but we know America through Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan and Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and Clifford Brown....

There was an uproar around Paul Simon's use of South African musicians on the Graceland project. What's your perspective on that?

t was so irrelevant because, again, it was the media chasing a story the same way they're chasing Whitewater. For me what was more important was that more musicians from South Africa should be heard. We're able through our music to bring awareness to the world of what was happening in our country, and if there were more of us, it would be more useful than it was. But none of those media people of that time are even interested in South Africa now, or in this tour. They're chasing another story right now. But another thing that I realize is that the news industry, worldwide, is basically owned by conservatives and right-wingers, and any kind of discredit it can bring to a person, they'll blow it out of proportion, and they'll never be on the side of the oppressed or the truth too much. Because they don't stand too much for elements like that.

Is there a white South African audience for black South African Music?
Even though [the white minority] didn't like black people, they liked the music. There's a story of the woman in the south who had the biggest Nat King Cole collection until she found out he was black and she destroyed it all.

There was never any legal contact, because it was illegal for white people to come to the townships, and it was illegal to be in town after ten. But of course there's a big following for it, otherwise we wouldn't have a Johnny Clegg.

What does South Africa need to build the infrastructure you were talking about, to develop its own indigenous music industry?

We need to have our own companies, like companies opened up here in the sixties. They opened up only when they saw that [Motown founder] Barry Gordy had found a market that they had ignored. And there has to be peace. You can't have people shooting down people while they're buying records. I'm involved in it already, for the last three and a half years. I have a record company, I teach at workshops and at a few universities, and I'm entering into film and television businesses -- just setting up infrastructures and hustling investors.

But not only that, there's education and health and welfare and housing, so there's a lot of stuff to do. Because we have nothing. The irony is that even if the African National Congress and Mandela become the government of South Africa tomorrow, we're still broke. There's a lot of compromise to be done. There's no way that the system can work without the existing civil service, which is 99 percent white. We don't even know where the switches are for anything, because we've been totally isolated from everything. So we'll have to work hand in hand with the white people there. And then we will have to find out how to satisfy the right-wing extremists, so that they don't fuck up the place.

There's going to have to be a meeting point somewhere, but where I don't know, because I don't dabble in politics. I'm a great observer, and we've always monitored the situation, but it's disappointing that after all these years, after 34 years, it's more fucked up now than it's ever been. But those are the birth pains, I guess, of change.

Hugh Masekela performs with Miriam Makeba at 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 19 at Bayou City Theatre, 6400 Richmond. $20-$22. Call 629-3700 for tickets.

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