Remembering Hugh Masekela
Hugh Masekela. (Photo: Getty Images)
The voice on the other end of the line was loud, raspy and a
“Anjani amagwinya lapho ekhaya mfowethu. Nisaphila kahle?
(How are the amagwinyas at home, my brother. Is everything okay there?).”
“Yeah, who’s this?” I said a little impatiently as we were right in the middle
of deadline and reporters were bashing furiously at their typewriters to get
copy through on time. “I’m Hugh Masekela,” he said.
He was calling from
New York, he added. And time stopped. “Hugh Masekela?” I screamed with joy,
excitedly gesturing to my colleagues to keep it down. “Hold on, hold on, Bra
Hugh,” I said, almost falling out of my chair. The typing had stopped and
everyone was looking at me. “Really, are you joking, man?” one scribe asked.
No, it wasn’t a joke. The mighty Hugh Masekela was on the line, talking to me,
a journalist at The Post at the time. Someone called the deputy editor, Aggrey
Klaaste, who couldn’t contain his glee.
“You have Hugh Masekela on the line?” Klaaste asked. I
nodded, telling Bra Hugh to hold on. “This is a front-page scoop,” said an
equally exhilarated Klaaste whose brother, pianist Sal Klaaste, had left for
London with Masekela and the cast of the jazz opera King Kong in 1961. “This is
a big story for us,” he said. It was 18 years since Hugh Masekela had left
South Africa and he was missing home. He wanted to find out how life was in SA
and to tell his fans, loved ones and South Africans that he really missed them.
He missed eating amagwinya and the buzzing townships and the
shebeens, which were an integral part of our lives in the ’70s. And so he’d
picked up the phone, called The Post and I’d answered. He then asked about
journalist Mike Phahlane, nicknamed “the indestructible” on account of
surviving being thrown out of a high-rise building, being shot at, stabbed and
pushed out of moving trains. Phahlane had protected him and other musicians
from gangsters in Sophiatown and Alexandra in the past, he reminisced, and he
He recalled how feared gangsters came to shows, jumped on
stage and stopped them in the middle of a performance, trying to jackroll, or
take by force, beautiful singers like Miriam Makeba and Thandi Klaasen. But if
Phahlane was in the audience, he would risk his life to protect the musicians.
This was 39 years ago, after Masekela went into exile and it was the beginning
of a friendship with a man I’d always respected and admired.
My last conversation
with Bra Hugh was a little more difficult. I placed a call to him in October
last year, after he decided to take a break from stage performances due to his
illness. I was fortunate to be, to my knowledge, the last journalist to
interview him (I’m ready to fight this, 19 October 2017). This time, I was the
one calling him to find out how he was. Instead of the sickly man I was
expecting, he was the same as always, bubbly and full of life as he talked about
his cancer. We hadn’t spoken for about a year before I placed what would be my
last call to the legend.
“I’d love us to meet again and talk,” he said. “We go back a
long way and we’ll go forward a long way. I’m not well. I’m battling prostate
cancer and my cells are going haywire and spreading. “But now I feel much
better. You can hear that, my brother. It’s a tough battle, but I have the
support of my family and friends, and that’s the greatest source of my
strength,” he said.
The interview was interspersed with pauses and I could hear
him breathing heavily on the other end of the line. “I woke up feeling a bit
down, but your call means a lot to me,” he continued.
“It came as a shock when the doctor told me there was a
metastasis, which means the cancer cells are spreading. “Hey, tell me, when are
we going to meet again and talk about a lot of things? We must make time when I
am better to meet and talk about the past, present and future,” he said.
But that was never to
be. Man plans, as they say, and God decides.
Bra Hugh wasn’t just a musician, he was also a master
storyteller. He would often reminisce about legendary photographer Alf Kumalo,
who he was close to. When Hugh was 16 his headmaster at the then St Peter’s
Secondary School, Father Trevor Huddleston, had given him a trumpet – a gift
from American jazz giant Louis Armstrong.
The then DRUM photographer Alf Kumalo took the young
Masekela to Alexandra to take pictures of him with his new horn.
“Bra Alf made me hold the trumpet in my right hand and jump
up – arms and legs stretched out – to take the image he wanted,” he told me
during one of our visits. “He made me repeat this several times and my friend
George Phahle, who was with us, was becoming restless and wanted us to go. He
shook his head and said: ‘Hey, Hugh, die groot man dink jy’s ’n moegie, ’n
moemish (He thinks you’re a clown).
“‘Tell him you’re not a clown, man, and stop jumping up and
down’. But the photographer was patient and knew what he wanted – to capture
that moment, press the shutter and get a beautiful picture.” The picture of the
young Masekela jumping became iconic and is on the cover of his autobiography,
Still Grazing. After studying at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, he
wanted to join jazz artist Les McCann’s band but he recalled it was hard. “Les
refused to hire me. He said, ‘Look man, you are from Africa and jazz is an
American thing. Do your own thing, man, because we all want to hear what is
coming from Africa, something fresh and new’.” That rejection was a turning
point in Masekela’s career and he went on to carve himself a niche in the
When Bra Hugh came back to the country, he took his stepson,
Adam, to St Martin’s School. My son, Lwazi, was at the same school and this
strengthened my friendship with the iconic musician. I remember one afternoon
being late to pick up my son from rugby and a familiar voice shouted from a parked
Rover. “Hey, Ngwenya, you’re late and you owe me money for looking after your
son.” I turned and there was Masekela sitting in the car with Adam and my son,
all laughing. The man who graced international stages didn’t mind taking my son
from school and dropping him at home when I was unavailable. He opened his home
to my kid, and I did the same to Adam, who now lives in Ghana. Masekela was
also quite sensitive and he took it hard when jazz critic and baritone
saxophonist Don Albert said Masekela wasn’t playing jazz. One night while
performing at Kippies, on the Market Theatre precinct in Joburg, I was sitting
in the audience with Albert and Bra Hugh said, “Don Albert says I don’t play
jazz. Listen to this.” And he blew a hard bop, squeezing notes into a bar with
dazzling speed. He blew us away that night. That’s who he was. Passionate,
sensitive and a champion of Africa. Rest in power, my friend.