The most memorable groove from that hot Mifflin Street summer of '68 - on the heels of the Dow riots on Bascom Hill the previous fall and Otis Redding's plane crashing into Lake Monona in December - was legendary South African trumpet/flugelhorn master Hugh Masekela's now-immortal "Grazin' in the Grass." Along with assorted baggage from that pivotal year, Masekela's masterpiece has followed me ever since, in successive versions and evolving recording formats. Will the man who Americanized ooga-booga play his famous boogaloo-meets-township jive hippie anthem live on the Wisconsin Union Theater stage on Jan. 31?
More importantly, Masekela's one of the great musicians of our lives. Pushing 70, with patina on his trademark gravelly voice, he's Afropop's grand old man and still wailin' like nobody else. Over the years he's layered his original South Africa sound with a blazing array of soul and Afrobeat motifs. On his latest album, Revival (2005), several tracks get a kwaito kick, with help from the new generation of South African musicians, while Masekela keeps up his purest old-school style with the mightily inspirational "Ibala Lam." This is the people's music, and Masekela was born to play it.
Masekela was born in the coal-mining town called Witbank, east of Johannesburg, where his grandmother brewed sorghum beer and ran a shebeen speakeasy for the coalminers. When he was 8 the family moved to Alexandria Township, a cosmopolitan slum that he describes (in the autobiographical liner notes on Hope, recorded in 1993) as being a mecca for music and soccer, with a wildly multiethnic population. "[It was] teeming with gangs, rife with crime, the best hideout for fugitives running from the law, the bedrock of the African National Committee's defiance campaigns."
As a teen in the early '50s Masekela got hooked on American musicians - Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Mahalia Jackson, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Bud Powell. At the movies, he saw Young Man With a Horn, where Kirk Douglas plays a jazz-age trumpeter. Masekela's future was so apparent that anti-apartheid archbishop Trevor Huddleston gave him a beat-up old trumpet. With that horn Masekela joined township dance bands and, with a handful of other young musicians, put together the first bebop combo to record in South Africa, the Jazz Epistles.
After the Sharpeville massacre, the catalyst for organized armed resistance in South Africa, Masekela split for the States. It was 1960, the year of the first lunch-counter sit-in (at Woolworth's in Greensboro, N.C.) and the first-ever (Kennedy-Nixon) televised presidential debate.
"I was brought to the U.S. by Miriam Makeba, my childhood friend," Masekela says, taking my call on his cell phone in Johannesburg, where it's late at night. "When I arrived there I was looking to play with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. So many jazz trumpet players worked with him - Clifford Brown, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard - I thought I might have a chance there. But I didn't get it. My destiny was Africa. Miriam used to tell me, 'If you play New York jazz you'll be just another jazz musician, but if you put the music of home in it you will stand out.'
"It was very hard for me to make that transition, but it opened a great window. I had to stretch my memory for my township dance-band days, but I was pleasantly surprised by how that music was received."
Masekela spent a decade in the States. In '64 he married Makeba, who divorced him two years later to tie the knot with Black Panther Stokely Carmichael. Masekela picked up every American idiom from bubblegum pop to gospel and funk. In fall of '68, after Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated and the Democratic convention in Chicago turned ugly, Masekela followed Promise of a Future (the album on which "Grazin' in the Grass" first appeared) with a self-titled platter of protest songs - "Mace and Grenades," "Fuzz," "Riot."
In the '70s, with the counterculture dead and Nixon in the White House, Masekela returned to Africa, teaming up with Nigeria's late, legendary Afrobeat king Fela Anikulapo Kuti for a while before putting out three hard-driving Afro-funk albums with Hedzoleh Soundz in Ghana. Masekela's famous, gritty coal-train song, "Stimela," inspired by his grandmother's speakeasy, dates to that period. So does the brilliant, post-boppy "Lagunta," featuring some of Masekela's most blistering horn work ever and, according to his notes on Hope, based on a melody he learned growing up in Alexandria Township from a beautiful teenage Tsonga girl.
In the '80s, Masekela collaborated on Sarafina!, the mbaquanga musical about apartheid, and did the Graceland tour with Paul Simon. But his greatest contribution to that decade was written at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, in impassioned response to a personal letter he received from his family friend Nelson Mandela, the long-imprisoned leader of the African National Congress. "Mandela" became the movement's theme song, to which the revolutionary hero danced at a rally celebrating his 1990 release.
Masekela finally went home. In '94, Mandela was elected South Africa's first black president. Fourteen years later, Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, has turned the country into a neoliberal disaster. Protests and police brutality are again on the rise.
In the repressive violence of the '50s, Masekela says, music was how people in the townships survived. These are much different times.
"We all looked forward to being able to enjoy our post-apartheid years without being harassed by police. But anti-apartheid music had such an impact on world consciousness - when our present government came in, they knew the arts wouldn't work to their advantage. It's not a coincidence that music and theater have died. It boggles the mind to figure out how artists exist in Africa today. When I grew up there were venues in every township, concerts and dances on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons. Now if you come to Johannesburg, I wouldn't have anywhere to take you to hear music.
"It's absurd," Masekela continues. "On TV and radio very little South African music is ever played. They play mostly European and American. It kills me - mediocrity wins, because international business has taken over the industry. The truth is not always pleasant."
Yeah. But Masekela remains irrepressible - a preacher in the people's never-ending struggle. His shows are movement revivals, solidarity fests. On Live at the Market Theatre (2004) he exhorts the Johannesburg crowd "to see what is happening, the pitiful and heartbreaking political opera that is not about people anymore but about personalities. I'd like to say let us not forget how we got here because if you're not vigilant about your freedom, one day you'll wake up and it'll be gone. So as a tribute to those old geezers who inspired us to be where we are today, I'd like us to just stand up and shake a little booty."
As the crowd cheers he launches into the jubilant "Mandela." Even though I'm just listening to the CD, it brings me to my jive-lovin' old knees. How does he do that?
"I think the songs people like come from some force that has universal appeal," he says, "or they happen because I'm at the right time, with the right emotion, and in the right place. The songs aren't my doing. I get them from forces of inspiration and my African resources. I'm just a channel for the people I come from. That's what accounts for the longevity of my songs. By the time you're finished mixing and editing a song you don't want to hear it again - till you're performing, and responding to what people want. We play what the people like, and over the years the people have spoken."
What will he play for the people here? "I'm coming with Sibongile Khumalo, a very great opera and traditional singer who I admire. She's very versatile - she recently finished touring with Jack DeJohnette. From Chissa [Masekela's new South African record label], I'm bringing Nathi Gcabashe, a fantastic young singer and composer; [Zulu fusion queen] Busi Mhlongo; and flute virtuoso Khaya Mahlangu. The joy of this tour is presenting these new-generation, contemporary musicians, and in collaborating with them onstage."
But what about the tunes? "I haven't decided what we're gonna do, but we always play what people love. If not, they'll come backstage and accost us. I have to play 'Grazin' in the Grass,' if I want to come out alive!"