Hugh Masekela: A South African Great, Playing 'To Get Well' At 70, Hugh Masekela says he has personally healed. But the trumpeter and vocalist, long known as both a celebrated artist and an anti-apartheid activist, has recorded "songs of concern" on his new album, Phola.

A South African Great, Playing 'To Get Well'

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Hugh Masekela turned 70 years old earlier this month. But there's not a hint of retirement in his music.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Mr. Masekela, of course, is a giant of jazz who was born in South Africa, fled apartheid when he settled in London, then later Los Angeles, and returned to South Africa after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. He's just beginning a U.S. tour and has released his 35th CD as a bandleader. It's called "Phola."

Hugh Masekela joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. HUGH MASEKELA (Musician): Thank you for inviting me, Scott.

SIMON: And phola is a South African term.

Mr. MASEKELA: Yeah, it's South African word. It means to get well, to heal, to chill. It's also, like, your home is a phola. So, it has multi meanings.

SIMON: The music on it is kind of a state of mind.

Mr. MASEKELA: No. I think it's more because Africa has been troubled for a long - well, the world has been troubled ever since I was born. But I think in the last 20 years, the troubles in Africa have just, like, escalated to a point where, I think, it needs to heal. And I personally, I think, have settled down very much in my life, and I've relaxed and healed.

But mainly the album has maybe four or five what I'll call songs of concern -concern about all the difficulties that Africa is going through right now.

SIMON: Draw our attention to a song on this CD you want to tell us about.

Mr. MASEKELA: Well, the third track is called "Bring It Back Home."

SIMON: Let's listen to a little bit of that.


(Soundbite of song, "Bring It Back Home")

Mr. MASEKELA: (Singing) They need your support, so they can get inside the fort, they promise that your dreams will come true when they win. Celebrate the victory. When they get inside the fort, they don't need you anymore. They don't return your phone calls; they got soldiers on every door, who will make you to go away. They have lots of memory, they embrace the enemy…

SIMON: That's a very powerful song. Zimbabwe?

Mr. MASEKELA: I would say just about most of the world. When people campaign for positions, they promise people all kinds of things. And as soon as they get into office, most administrations or administrators forget the constituencies who put them in the big seat. It's an old political thing. I'm not preaching anything that's new, you know? So it's just an observation that, I guess, from time to time you have to remind people.

SIMON: Well, what about those people who might listen to your music and say, boy, that's a nice little song; I like that. Hum it, but don't really listen through the lyrics?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MASEKELA: What about them?

SIMON: Yeah. Can they still be your fans? I mean, is that all right with you?

Mr. MASEKELA: Yeah, I mean, you can't force people. If you could force people to listen to the lyrics and take them seriously, then you'd be a dictator, just like the dictators that you're singing about.

SIMON: Music question: do I have this right? You were inspired to be a trumpet player by Kirk Douglas.

Mr. MASEKELA: Well, by a Kirk Douglas movie.

SIMON: Okay. I know that's the story. I'm just trying to get you to tell it, yeah.

Mr. MASEKELA: Well, I started playing the piano when I was six years old, 'cause my folks tried to get me away from the gramophone. And I lived for music since I could think, and they got me a piano. So, by the time I was 13, I was quite an accomplished piano player and musician. And I went to see this film, "Young Man With a Horn," and the chaplain of my school, Bishop Trevor Huddleston, who was deported from South Africa for his anti-apartheid activities, well, he was worried about everybody but especially restless people, restless youth. And he knew my parents, who were community workers.

And they was worried about me. He called everybody creature. And he said, creature, you know, you're always in trouble with the authorities. If you get expelled from this school, no other school will ever accept you. What do you really want to do? And I said, father, I've just seen this movie, "Young Man With a Horn." It's the story of Bix Beiderbecke - and Harry James was the trumpet player who played on the soundtrack. And Harry James had probably one of the most beautiful tones on the trumpet that any player ever had. And I said, if you can get me a trumpet, Father, I won't bother anybody anymore.

I got me a trumpet and the trumpet teacher from the Johannesburg Native Municipal Brass Band, Anka Souder(ph), came to teach me how to hold the trumpet and blow it. And two months later, I was blowing songs on it. And other kids were like, oh, Father, can I have a trombone, can I have a clarinet, can I have a saxophone?. And soon we had the Huddleston Jazz Band.

And then on his way out of South Africa, he came through the United States. And I think in Rochester, one of the people from his brotherhood was, like, a clarinet player, was a dear friend of Louis Armstrong — he loved Dixieland. And Huddleston told him about this youth band that he had started. Louis Armstrong sent us a trumpet, and we became famous overnight.

SIMON: I feel this is a good time to listen to your cut, "Sonnyboy."


(Soundbite of song, "Sonnyboy")

Mr. MASEKELA: (Singing) Remember the days when he was only a little boy playing on the gramophone? It never entered our minds that the music would take over. Piano lessons were designed to take his mind away from the gramophone. Silly mommy and daddy figured that they were very clever…

SIMON: I think I know who this song's about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MASEKELA: I had to run away from home in order to be a musician. 'Cause I came from a family of - my father was a health inspector; my mother was a social worker. And I was pretty smart in school, so they expected me to be some kind of academic — schoolteacher, a doctor, a lawyer — and they were very disappointed when I told them I wanted to be a musician.

And my father just lost it and kicked my behind. So, I left them a note to say, hey, sorry, dad, but this is the way I'm going.

SIMON: Another music question: you play the flugelhorn on this CD.

Mr. MASEKELA: Yeah. I've been playing the flugelhorn for exactly 40 years now. Because the trumpet, for me, was very screechy. You know, it depends on who's blowing it. But when I blew the trumpet, it was very, like, screechy and I didn't like my sound. Then I heard an album called "The Musings of Miles," Miles Davis. And that is the only album where he played on one track, the flugelhorn, and he just sounded so beautiful, it had a fat, dark, rich tone. And I decided to go and buy a flugelhorn right then and there. I haven't blown the trumpet since.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Do you think I should talk about Miriam Makeba?

Mr. MASEKELA: Yeah, Miriam Makeba I met when I was 13 years old at the time, and Miriam Makeba was, I think, was about 20 years old. She had just come to Johannesburg and she was singing with a group called the Cuban Brothers. And we were there in our uniforms, about ten of us, and she sang and we all fell madly in love with her. When we were going back, we were all singing the songs she sang.

And then three years later, she was singing there with the Manhattan Brothers, and our eyes met and we became very dear friends and lovers. And four years later, she came to the States and had massive success. And when I came to England, she came to England and said, listen, I got you a scholarship at the Manhattan School of Music with the help of Dizzy Gillespie and John Mehegan and Harry Belafonte's going to help me to send you to school.

SIMON: You guys were married too, weren't you?

Mr. MASEKELA: Yeah, we got married in 1966…

SIMON: Okay.

Mr. MASEKELA: …1964.

SIMON: You seem to have dropped that out of the recitation though. You said friends, lovers.

Mr. MASEKELA: Yeah. Well, we remained dear friends. We were not successful at marriage. And what I want to say, really, about Miriam is that I don't think there is anybody who ever did for Africa what Miriam did. Just really put the face of Africa on the map for the world. And she was just an amazing, an amazing person.

SIMON: Read an interview recently in which you said that since apartheid has ended and South Africa has been liberated from the yoke of apartheid, the music scene, in what used to be called the townships, might be a little less interesting.

Mr. MASEKELA: No, I think what I said was that it's amazing. It's actually a paradox that South African music became famous worldwide during apartheid. And there was major musical activity in South Africa. And when I grew up, it was like the playing fields for one to hone their skills were all over.

After we became free, one of the things that happened was that South Africa had been a police state. So, it was sort of artificially safe for entertainment, because there were police all over. But they were there to, like, really enforce apartheid and to harass native people. But it created a very, very friendly and secure environment for music and theater to burgeon.

And another thing is that the apartheid government used the greatness of South African theatrical and musical talent to sort of say to the world if we are so bad, how come we're producing so many great musicians and actors?

And when we became free, one of the first things that we did is, I think, is we wanted to show the world that we're not a police state anymore. So, safety and security really suffered very badly. And, like, when a place is not safe at night, and there's no security, entertainment and recreation just disappear. You know, and that is what has happened, and it's very sad because there's no place, really, today for musicians, not just young musicians, for musicians and even theatrical people to hone their skills and to develop their talents. I think it's a great loss.

SIMON: Mr. Masekela, thanks so much.

Mr. MASEKELA: You're welcome. I hope you've got bail money for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: There are a lot of people watching you in the control room. So, if you keep the crime modest, I think we can afford (unintelligible).

Mr. MASEKELA: I got a cap here I can pass around.

SIMON: Hugh Masekela's new album is "Phola." You can hear additional cuts from it at

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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