Can’t stop now
At 72, South African jazz legend Hugh Masekela is as prolific as ever
If ever there was a person who could be said to have truly “been there, done that,” legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela would easily fit the bill. After all, how many people can say that they have lived through the struggles of apartheid, recovered from decades of alcohol addiction and traveled the world many times over as a famous musician, having performed and recorded with the likes of Paul Simon, Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and The Byrds? And that’s just the tip of a large iceberg.
However, during a recent phone interview from Namibia, when confronted with the question, “So, you’ve been there, done that—what are you excited about these days?” Masekela didn’t miss a beat: “I don’t think anybody’s ever ‘been there, done that.’ There’s 7 billion people in the world!” There is always, in other words, someone new to meet, something new to do and see.
His take on the joys of living a long life was refreshing, his enthusiasm infectious. “I am excited about life, about being alive,” offered Masekela, who is set to grace the stage at Chico State’s Laxson Auditorium on Feb. 11 with his high-energy Afro-beat/jazz sounds and killer six-piece band.
“You have to remember I never thought I’d live this long,” he added, referring to his struggles with substance abuse.
“I’m into Chinese tai chi,” said the nearly 73-year-old Masekela, beginning to run down the things he’s doing that keep his life exciting. “I have a novel coming out, a Johannesburg thriller called Honky.” “Honky,” he explained, is short for “Seholongo"—"a name in my ancestral native language that one of my uncles was called. It means ‘a very strong farmer who doesn’t need to sleep.'” His debut novel, self-published by his book-publishing company, House of Masekela, will be released in March, in South Africa first.
Masekela said he started the novel 13 years ago, and it is the first of three that he has been working on to be finished. “I finished it two months ago,” he said. “I have a very sharp literary group of young South Africans that I have been working with.”
Masekela next mentioned the musical theater company he started three years ago: “We did a play called Songs of Migration at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg [in 2010], and we are bringing it to the Kennedy Center [in Washington, D.C.] in October, and to the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland in August. “ Masekela added that he both acted and played music in the James Ngcobo play.
Masekela is also getting ready to release two albums. In late March, he and his “old friend,” pianist Larry Willis, with whom he attended the Manhattan School of Music 50 years ago, will release Friends, a four-CD box set of “all old American classic ballads,” such as “Body and Soul,” “A Portrait of Jennie” and “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” On Friends, Masekela sings the Fats Waller tune “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” ("I sing it real romantically").
The second album, recorded with his touring band, will be called Masimong. “'Masimong’ means ‘in the field plowing and harvesting,” Masekela said. “And don’t forget the manure!”
“I’m doing all those things, and community work,” he went on in his bubbly, happy way. Masekela said he works as a substance-abuse counselor as well as a trainer of substance-abuse counselors for his Musicians and Artists Assistance Programme of South Africa foundation.
Sounds like a man who is busy doing everything he possibly can. “Yes, I have to,” he said. “How can I be bored when I have so much to do?”