Hugh Masekela: Out of the Hell of Apartheid

Hugh Masekela: Out of the Hell of Apartheid


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



I will never erase my internal recording of Hugh’s eyes as he said what it felt like to be in exile in New

York City and one day run across a man in Central Park, a black man who turned out to be South

African and the overwhelming joy Hugh felt as he and that brother-stranger talked in their mother tongue



Books by Kalamu ya Salaam


The Magic of JuJu: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement  /   360: A Revolution of Black Poets

Everywhere Is Someplace Else: A Literary Anthology  /  From A Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets

Our Music Is No Accident   /  What Is Life: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self

My Story My Song (CD)


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Hugh Masekela: Out of the Hell That Was Apartheid

By Kalamu ya Salaam


I think that any artist that comes from an oppressed community and doesn’t sing or talk about it needs his head examined. Now, I wasn’t making music because of oppression; I was making music because I loved it and it’s all I’ve ever done. The fact that I came from a country with oppressed people was just a coincidence. Had I been a garbage man, I would have been just as militant.—Hugh Masekela

  In the sixties and early seventies Hugh Masekela was a long way from home. Black Power Los Angeles was nothing like Apartheid Johannesburg—or was it? One struggle different fronts and, of course, the different fronts had different conditions, nevertheless, the centrality of black people struggling to create a new identity, struggling to challenge and change status quo social conditions, all of this was very much like home to the young African man in exile.   

Here was a man who learned to play trumpet on a trumpet given to his school by Louis Armstrong.

Music was his ticket to ride. Straight up on out of the hell that was apartheid.

And to marry Mariam Makeba, one of the sweets singers to ever ululate Xhosa.

There my man was in the midst of cultural revolution, American style and in the midst of protest, riots and rebellions. Was Watts really far away from Soweto, was Harlem that distant from Sophiatown?

Listen to Hugh’s early music and you will hear something, something startling, something familiar, something surprising, something enjoyable. You will hear African-American music echoed in a South African sound. You will hear the old world origins of new world innovations. From the funk of “The Boy’s Doin’ It” to the hard bop of “Blues for Huey”; from the gospel of “Hush (Somebody’s Calling My Name)” and the balladry of “Mamani” to the protest of “Coincidence” and the samba of “Felicidade”; from the party hilarity of “Grazing In The Grass” (which was a mega 1968 hit) and the ironic sarcasm of “A Song For Brazil” to the introspective beauty of “Where Are You Going?” and the spiritual sublimity of “Minawa,” all of this fabulous music is music recorded in exile, music made years before a return home. And please check out the fabulous Letta Mbulu, multi-tracking her voice on the appropriately titled “Melodi (Sounds of Home),” consistently hitting high notes a piccolo is afraid of. Imagine the guts and the imagination it took to produce these songs. In one sense it is unbelievable—is it not a wonder how we can hold our sanity within the sanctuary of our woolly heads amid trials, tumult and indefinite alienation from all that we hold dear?   I remember bra Hugh laughing about those years. We were in Martinique (or it might have been Guadeloupe or even St. Lucia), attending a jazz festival and I hung out with him for an evening. You should have seen him talk about how physically fit they were while living in Los Angeles. Hugh said that one of the recording executives even commented on it. Then Hugh laughed his hearty South African chortle: “they didn’t know we were so poor we couldn’t afford any transport. We rode our bicycles everywhere—that’s why we were in such good shape.” You can not fully understand the joke if you’ve never been to Los Angeles where everything is so spread out, you need to drive a car to get to the corner store! But hasn’t humor always been one of the secret (or really not-so-secret) ingredients in our survival kit? Hugh’s music has that deep humor in spades, running in parallel to the even deeper seriousness: the freedom ideals, the struggle encouragement, the, shall we say, mad and maddening coincidences of life. 

I will never erase my internal recording of Hugh’s eyes as he said what it felt like to be in exile in New York City and one day run across a man in Central Park, a black man who turned out to be South African and the overwhelming joy Hugh felt as he and that brother-stranger talked in their mother tongue; how important it was to speak those birth syllables after so long being tongue tied by alien English.

I have always loved the way Hugh sings. Full out, bellowing, shouting, cussing, laughing, 100% invested in the sounds his voice makes regardless of whether it is pretty or in tune in a western sense.

I have always believed that black music was and remains the African-American mother tongue. Music is our address, where we live, how to reach us, especially in a strange and alienating land. But music was also our firmament, our line of defense and, in sometimes subtle, sometimes strange ways, also our weapon and escape vehicle. Every step of the way, Hugh was challenging the system. Music—the force of his personality personified in song and flugelhorn, confronting stereotypes.   No jungle bunny, he challenged what they saw when they looked at him, what they heard when they listened to him. All of his music had a deepness that was captivating.

Credit must be given to Hugh’s expertise as a jazz musician. But then again equal credit must be given to Hugh’s fearless deployment of his African roots.

When Hugh did The Boy’s Doin’ It album it was a pan-African effort that employed Ghanaian musicians while most of his other recordings had been with fellow exiles and American musicians. This was early, early examples of what we have come to call world music. And beyond recording, he started a record label, Chisa; worked out a distribution deal with Motown, attempting to seize the means of production. Too many of us are unaware of all that we have been. We think fighting to get ahead, to own and to control is something new, something recently thought of. Not so. Much of this music is available to us today because Hugh owns rights—give thanks. On the artistic scale, the pinnacle of all of Hugh’s early catalogue is his jazz album Home Is Where The Music Is. The title alone is a philosophical statement of the highest order, a statement intuitively, if not consciously, embraced by African-American culture. The band is composed of three South Africans (Hugh Masekela – trumpet; Dudu Pukwana – alto; Makhaya Ntshoko) and two Americans (Eddie Gomez – bass and Larry Willis – piano). This 1972 recording is an accurate reflection of the time period and one of the best jazz albums from that era. Although it is not well known, when people do hear it, invariably, they are knocked out by the exhilarating excellence of the music. The repertoire moves from moments of soft shinning subtlety to all out, surging, no holds barred passionate playing. At the end of the drum solo on “Blues for Huey,” you can hear one of the band members shout out: call an ambulance! 

This mixtape is a homage to the early years of a musical hero. There is more to come—Hugh is still making beautiful music. And we will get to all of that in due time but for now let us pause and reflect. Let us journey back in time. Here are some artifacts from those long gone years. These are not mere curios to be gawked at momentarily and then forgotten. This is a sinew holding together our souls. These sounds are moments you may not remember but once you hear them, whether now for the first time or for the first time in a long time, these sounds are songs that should reside forever in the home of your heart.  

Mixtape PlayList

 Early Hugh Mixtape.mp3

1. “The Boys Doin’ It”

2. “Melodi (Sounds of Home)”

3. “Bajabula Bonke (The Healing Song)”

4. “Grazing In The Grass”

5. “Coincidence”

6. “Where Are You Going?”

7. “Hush (Somebody’s Calling My Name)”

8. “Mamani”

9. “Ntjilo-Ntjilo”

10. “A Song For Brazil”

11. “Felicidade”

12. “Blues For Huey”

13. “Unhome”

14. “Ingoo Pow-Pow (Children’s Song)”

15. “Minawa”

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Get Your Maskela On

The Boy’s Doin’ It “The Boys Doin’ It” “A Song For Brazil”Hugh Masekela Presents the CHISA Years: 1965-1975 (Rare & Unreleased) “Melodi (Sounds of Home)”The Promise Of A Future “Bajabula Bonke (The Healing Song)”Stimela “Grazing In The Grass” “Coincidence” “Felicidade”Lasting Impression Of Ooga Booga “Where Are You Going?”GRRR “Ntjilo-Ntjilo”Hugh Masekela & Union Of South Africa “Hush (Somebody’s Calling My Name)” “Mamani”Home Is Where The Music Is “Blues For Huey” “Unhome” “Ingoo Pow-Pow (Children’s Song)” “Minawa”


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Hugh Masekla, Don’t Go Lose It Baby 

Hugh Masekela—Coal Train Live

Hugh Masekela – Mandela (Bring Him Back Home) 

Miriam Makeba with Hugh Masekela—Soweto Blues

Hugh Masekela—Thanayi  / Hugh Masekela—Mama

South Africa Celebrates Youth Day

Voices Of South Africa: Youth Day 

Soweto’s Iconic Image

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Africa Makes Some Noise—Documentary on contemporary music from Africa

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

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I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

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A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her book’s footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a convention’s decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maier’s accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents’ objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly). Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state convention’s verdict affected another’s. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.—Booklist

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posted 8 December 2008




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