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A South African Great, Playing 'To Get Well'

Hugh Masekela performs on the fluegelhorn in Kenya in 2007. He says he was inspired by a recording of Miles Davis playing the instrument. "He got that fat, dark, rich tone," Masekela says. "And I decided to go buy a fluegelhorn right there and then. I haven't blown the trumpet since."
Simon Maina
AFP/Getty Images
Hugh Masekela performs on the fluegelhorn in Kenya in 2007. He says he was inspired by a recording of Miles Davis playing the instrument. "He got that fat, dark, rich tone," Masekela says. "And I decided to go buy a fluegelhorn right there and then. I haven't blown the trumpet since."

Trumpeter Hugh Masekela turned 70 earlier this month. But there are no hints of retirement in his music.

Masekela is a jazz giant who was born in South Africa. He fled apartheid, settling in London and later Los Angeles, and then returned to South Africa after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. He is just finishing up a U.S. tour, complete with the release of his 35th album as a bandleader. It's called Phola — a term that means "to get well" or "to heal."

"Africa has been troubled for a long time — well, the world has been troubled ever since I was born," Masekela says. "But I think in the last 20 years, the troubles in Africa have escalated to a point where I think it needs to heal. And I personally, I think, have settled down in my life, and I've relaxed and healed."

In an interview with Scott Simon, Masekela says he has recorded several "songs of concern" on Phola. In "Bring It Back Home," he sings, "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."

"When people campaign for positions, they promise people all kinds of things," Masekela says. "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."

Not that he would force anyone to listen to him.

"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," Masekela says.

Young Man, Meet Horn

Masekela has studied music since age 6 — when, he says, his parents signed him up for piano lessons to tear him away from the gramophone. "I lived for music since I could think," he says.

By the time he was 13, Masekela was a talented piano player. But then he saw a certain Kirk Douglas movie — and, separately, he was confronted by his school's chaplain, anti-apartheid activist and Archbishop Trevor Huddleston.

"He called everybody 'creature,' " Masekela says. "And he said, 'Creature, 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, I won't bother anyone anymore.' "

Huddleston secured him a trumpet and a teacher from the Johannesburg "Native" Municipal Brass Band. Two months later, Masekela says, he could tap out songs.

"And other kids were like, 'Oh, Father, can I have a trombone, can I have a clarinet, can I have a saxophone?' " he says. "And soon we had the Huddleston Jazz Band."

When Huddleston was sent into exile for his political stance, he visited the U.S.

"And I think in Rochester [N.Y.], one of the people from his brotherhood was, like, a clarinet player, [and] was a dear friend of Louis Armstrong — he loved Dixieland," Masekela says. "And Huddleston told him about this youth band that he had started. Louis Armstrong sent us a trumpet, and we became famous overnight."

Much of Masekela's early life in music is actually retold on the album, in the autobiographical track "Sonnyboy."

"I had to run away from home in order to be a musician," Masekela says. "Because 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, or doctor, 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.' "

Faces Of Africa

Around the time he picked up the trumpet, Masekela first saw singer Miriam Makeba perform. A few years later, she returned to Johannesburg.

"Three years later, she was singing there with the Manhattan Brothers, and our eyes met," Masekela says. "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, 'Look, 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.' "

Masekela and the late Makeba were once married, as well. Though Masekela says it was not a successful marriage, the two remained close friends.

"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," he says. "Just really put the face of Africa on the map for the world. And she was just an amazing, an amazing person."

Masekela also spoke about the state of the South African music community today. He pointed out the irony that music seemed to thrive under the state repression of apartheid.

"It's actually a paradox that South African music became famous worldwide during apartheid," Masekela says. "And there was major musical activity in South Africa — when I grew up, it was like the playing fields for one to hone their skills were all over."

Masekela points out that the police state of apartheid, though intended to segregate and divide, had the benefit of enforcing security. Additionally, the South African government celebrated the accomplishments of its musicians as justification for its segregation.

"When we became free, one of the first things that we did was — we wanted to show the world that we're not a police state anymore," Masekela says. "So safety and security really suffered very badly. When a place is not safe at night, and there's no security, entertainment and recreation just disappear. That is what has happened, and it's very sad because there's no place, really, today for musicians ... to hone their skills and to develop their talents. I think it's a great loss."

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