We were concentrating on our tacos and enchiladas and were not focusing on the background music being played, sounds that were probably the usual stereotypical Mexican mariachi-style music suitable for such a restaurant.
Then, suddenly, there was that unforgettable, unmistakable staccato cowbell sound and those unique trumpet riffs, and we were enveloped in Hugh Masekela’s Grazin’ in the Grass.
We were only recently back in the US for work, after our first assignment in South Africa, and now, suddenly, at least in our imaginations and memories, we were right back in South Africa again.
Never mind that this great tune would not have been heard on South African radio, nor easily come by in any local record stores at the time, but it had been a number one hit on the American charts in 1968, and it had been played incessantly for months almost everywhere.
Hugh had been living in the US for half a decade by the time it was composed, recorded, and released, and it captured the popular imagination almost instantly.
It could easily have been a musical paean to a homeland now lost to the composer, a place he would not visit again until 1990.
Or maybe it was just a dizzyingly great tune out of Africa as constructed in the mind of the composer.
Besides Grazin’ in the Grass, of course, Hugh Masekela went on to compose and record dozens of other fine tunes, but it was Grazin’ in the Grass that made him a musical household name internationally, early in his career.
As a youngster, at the famed St Peter’s School for African students in Rosettenville, Johannesburg, Masekela had apparently been a troublesome child in class.
When asked by the school’s legendary head, the Anglican priest, Trevor Huddleston, what would help the young Masekela to settle down, the student had instantly replied, “a trumpet!”; Masekela had already fallen in love with the sound and the idea of the trumpet and trumpet player after seeing Kirk Douglas in the 1950 film, Young Man With a Horn, based on a novel that had been inspired by the life of Bix Beiderbecke.
And he knew where he wanted to go.
Recognising talent, or perhaps just wanting the key to helping the boy to settle down, Huddleston scraped together the money to purchase a trumpet for him, as well as to pay for lessons, and this became a perfect fit for him.
Eventually Huddleston even managed to meet Louie Armstrong during a trip to the US and Huddleston obtained a horn from the star – as a gift for his pupil in Johannesburg.
Just imagine that moment and the effect it would have had on a still-unknown, teenaged student in Johannesburg, back in the 1950s, to be able to hold – and to play – an instrument that had already been owned by a world-famous performer like Armstrong.
Some powerful stuff, that.
Horn in hand and still a teenager, by 1956 Masekela was already a regular in Johannesburg jazz and dance bands performing in cities across the country, and by 19, he was a member of the pit orchestra for the country’s great hit show, King Kong, the musical composed by Todd Matshikiza.
King Kong told the story of the rise and fall of a local boxer Ezekiel “King Kong” Dlamini and it became a legendary show, combining the talents of black and white South Africans in putting it together, despite the restrictions of apartheid.
Upon his passing, the New York Times wrote of Masekela after his first successes,
“The next year he joined Abdullah Ibrahim (then known as Dollar Brand) and four other upstart instrumentalists in the Jazz Epistles, South Africa’s first bebop band of note.
With a heavy, driving pulse and warm, arcing melodies, their music was distinctly South African, even as its swing rhythms and flittering improvisations reflected affinities with American jazz.
‘There had never been a group like the Epistles in South Africa,’ Masekela said in his 2004 autobiography, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela, written with D. Michael Cheers.
‘Our tireless energy, complex arrangements, tight ensemble play, languid slow ballads and heart-melting, hymn-like dirges won us a following, and soon we were breaking all attendance records in Cape Town.’ ”
But King Kong also took the cast and orchestra to London on what was supposed to be a much larger international tour.
Successful in London, it never moved to Broadway, but many of the cast and musicians decided not to return to South Africa, including Jonas Gwangwa, Abdullah Ibrahim, Miriam Makeba – and the young Hugh Masekela.
Masekela promptly enrolled in the Guildhall School of Music, but it was not a good fit.
Instead, he gained admission to the Manhattan School of Music in New York City under the encouragement of singer Harry Belafonte where he studied classical trumpet and roamed the clubs of a city that was near the peak of its time for progressive jazz, listening to the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, among others.
Eager to become a jazz performer in that idiom, he got advice from the likes of Davis to draw upon his own musical heritage and make that music his own instead.
(During that period, he was married to Miriam Makeba for several years and although the marriage did not last, their friendship and musical collaboration did.)
By the time my wife and I had returned to South Africa in 1989, it was becoming clear that apartheid was a dying ideology and musicians and other expatriated performers were beginning to figure out how to manage their respective returns to South Africa after long periods of exile.
One afternoon, I received a phone call in our office in Pretoria – I never caught the actual name of the caller – and he told us we had to present ourselves at Kippies that night.
That was it. By this time in the unravelling of apartheid, that could have meant almost anything, and so, curiosity aroused, we drove to Johannesburg to enter the city’s best known jazz club in Newtown, close to the Market Theatre.
It was packed with people and most of those faces were rather well known members of the country’s black music elite or black political figures with a love for jazz.
The first set was well played by some local folks, but there was nothing earth-shaking about it. Then, as the musicians took their respective seats after the break, a short-ish, solidly built man carrying a trumpet case strode into the venue, opened up that instrument case and pulled out a horn and did a few rituals to get ready, and then just played. And played.
And the crowd exploded at the sounds from a musical hero – finally returned home from a far distant place.
Without any publicity or public warning, it was Hugh Masekela’s first public gig in South Africa after three decades abroad.
Years later, when we returned to South Africa for a third assignment and then retirement here, we became better acquainted with him.
By then he had shaken off alcohol and substance abuse problems that had dogged him for decades; he had moved to a home out in Bryanston where he began gardens of vegetables and fruit trees and took up, of all things, the oriental exercise routine of tai-chi to keep him limber and ready for the rigours of live performance.
My wife was teaching in a school nearby Masekela’s home and she remembers seeing him taking long walks through the neighbourhood.
In 2010 and ’11, he was a major part of the very successful Market Theatre production, Songs of Migration – both in Johannesburg and internationally.
About Masekela’s contribution, Market Theatre artistic director James Ngcobo said, “Bra Hugh was many things to a whole lot of people who interacted with him, he was a mentor who loved nothing but sharing his passion of storytelling and heritage.
The whole company that was involved in the creation of Songs of Migration would echo these words and say that around him they had clarity, guidance and a deep sense of memory.”
Songs of Migration recounted the music that so many people had brought with them to Johannesburg from throughout South and southern Africa as they came to work on the mines, as well as the music of immigrant groups from Europe at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.
Paired up with renowned singer Sibongile Khumalo, as well as back-up singers and a full on-stage band, it was still Hugh Masekela who brought down the house with his horn playing, his singing, his dancing (!) and his storytelling.
And it was his song, Stimela – once again with the cowbells and his gravelly, rasping voice – that told of the tribulations of so many men forced into mine work to feed families, but only if they left their homes.
This time around, the key wasn’t his trademark horn. Instead it was the insistent driving sound of the cowbell – bringing to life the very sense of the train’s movement – and that voice of his, recounting the migrants’ tribulations that again captured his audience:
There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawithere is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe,There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique,From Lesotho, from Botswana, from Swaziland,From all the hinterland of southern and central Africa.
This train carries young and old, African menWho are conscripted to come and work on contractIn the golden mineral mines of JohannesburgAnd its surrounding metropolis, sixteen hours or more a dayFor almost no pay.
Deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earthWhen they are digging and drilling that shiny mighty evasive stone,Or when they dish that mish mesh mush foodinto their iron plates with the iron shank.
Or when they sit in their stinking, funky, filthy,Flea-ridden barracks and hostels.
They think about the loved ones they may never see againBecause they might have already been forcibly removedFrom where they last left them
Or wantonly murdered in the dead of nightBy roving, marauding gangs of no particular origin,We are told.
They think about their lands, their herdsThat were taken away from them
With a gun, bomb, and the tear gas, the gatling and the cannon.And when they hear that Choo-Choo train
A-chugging, and a pumping, and a smoking, and a pushing, a pumping, a crying and a steaming and a chugging and a whooo whooo!
They always cuss, and they curse the coal train,The coal train that brought them to Johannesburg. Whooo whooo!...
By now he must have sung, danced and played Stimela uncounted times but in his hands and lips it still had, on stage, the feeling that he had just that night dreamt it up, fresh but outraged – even if his audience most likely knew it all by heart after having heard it for many years.
Flash forward to earlier this year. We last saw Hugh at Sibongile Khumalo’s 60th birthday celebrations at the Market Theatre a few months ago.
There he was in the audience to pay his respects to another great musician, but this time, instead of that nearly protean figure who had defied time, he was clearly not well.
He had an eye patch over one eye following an operation, and he had obviously lost considerable weight.
He was seated right behind us and so at the end of the performance I gently helped him up the stairs, holding his arm, to guide him towards the exit. We never saw him again.
With his passing, there has been no end to the tributes paid to him by broadcasters, journalists, government offices and the like.
Too many of them have picked up the odd formulation of Hugh Masekela as the father of South African jazz. Strange because Masekela was well steeped in the vibrant jazz culture of the Johannesburg where he had grown up.
Rather, his true genius, well beyond an outsized life lived to the full, was as a true giant of world music – even before that term had been invented in the early 1980s.
Masekela integrated his South African traditional and jazz roots, other African musical forms, pop music, funk, rock, electronic effects and American jazz and then turned it all into something new and unique instead.
His music became something that could appeal to purists and jazz fundis, as well as so many more people who just loved a great tune delivered with style, verve and love of the music.
Yes, he lent his talents to the cause of South Africa’s liberation during apartheid, recording music in this vein such as a famous song about Nelson Mandela, (Mandela) Bring Him Back Home. The New York Times’ obituary observed,
“Mr. Masekela tended to emphasise the breadth of the musical tradition that inspired him.
‘I was marinated in jazz, and I was seasoned in music from home,’ he said in a 2009 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
‘Song is the literature of South Africa.’ He added, ‘There’s no political rally that ever happened in South Africa without singing being the main feature.’ ”
But, years after the end of apartheid, his essential honesty made him respond that the government still needed to confront and address the great injustices and ills of the new nation.
He still could retain some of his anger over the past, telling a BBC interviewer that he was still in pain over the fact that he had not been able to return home to attend to the funeral of his mother while he was in exile, but then there was a brief, small smile that seemed to signal that, despite that pain, one must move on beyond the deep hurts of the past and focus on the here and now.
In their efforts to sum up his life and assuage their own pain over this loss of a friend and musical colleague, fellow musicians seemed to have it right about both Hugh Masekela’s place in the world of music and musicians – as well as his big-hearted humanity.
South African composer/pianist Rashid Lanie, now living largely in Los Angeles, wrote to say,
“… many people wrestle with the idea of him being a ‘Jazz Musician’ vs him being a ‘Folk Muso’ with Jazz chops.
Well, I got to tell you was [that] I and the rest of the band [were] blown away one night after performing at the International Denver Jazz Festival, the same night the Democratic National Convention was under way nominating Barack Obama for the USA Presidency, he decided to invite us to a Jazz Jam that was happening somewhere downtown in Denver.
Bra Hugh got on stage with some heavy straight ahead Jazzers, Wow! He blew us all away with the knowledge of standards and his improvisational skills that he displayed.
And then I realised he had followed the advice of Miles to stick close to his home music and not waste his time with American Jazz as that was Miles’s domain.”
And Darius Brubeck, after a lifetime of performing and teaching in the US and South Africa (and a son of jazz great Dave Brubeck) could add,
“Our lives connected and intersected at significant points over the last 50 years, starting in 1968 when Grazin’ in the Grass was a major hit in the US.
Back then I was just another student music fan falling for a sound and ‘feel’ that was relaxed yet exciting, new yet familiar. It still plays in my head and I’ve been hearing it almost non-stop since Tuesday morning.
“The importance of that track and Hugh’s music generally was that it announced a new kind of African presence.
It took getting used to in 1968 because Americans mainly associated Africa with drums and choirs and this music sounded both African and western, urban and modern. This is the identity that Masekela’s music projected for the first time on a massive scale….
“In 1987, I formally interviewed him at the Montreux Jazz Festival for The Weekly Mail. I’m sure other people have mentioned Hugh’s humility, but this conversation provided two striking examples in different areas. He was genuinely modest about being on a programme billed ‘Trumpet Summit’ with Randy Brecker and other great players, as though he weren’t one himself.
And, because Hugh was perhaps the most prominent musician in the ANC’s international cultural campaign against apartheid, I thought I should ask if he had a message for his music comrades back home. He brushed this off with the phrase, ‘Messages come from above’.
Although famously articulate, witty and outspoken, he was aware that his life as a free and relatively wealthy black South African outside the country was far removed from the realities his fellow musicians in Soweto and Langa were coping with and he wouldn’t burden them further with advice on how to dedicate their lives to the struggle.
“After he finally returned to SA in 1990, ‘Bra Hugh’ seemed to be everywhere, especially in demand for huge concerts, but discussions did resume about the possibility of teaching at the University of Natal. I was the go-between whenever he came down to Durban and, through the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music, he did conduct significant and memorable classes. His impact on students was indeed like something ‘from above’!….”
And now the man is gone but the world has been left with his great musical legacy.