Monday, April 03, 2006

Hugh Masekela: Grappling with the Grazer

Hugh Masekela’s birthday will be April 4, so this is a good week to grapple with his mixed legacy. Masekela has produced some very entertaining music, but one gets the sense that he could have done much more.

Masekela’s first recording was on the cast album for the fantastic South African musical King Kong, the story of a township boxer, rather than a primate from Skull Island. It seemed Masekela was marked by the titans of jazz as a chosen child. Hearing of a young trumpet player in need of a horn, Louis Armstrong actually sent one to the seventeen year-old Masekela. Through the sponsorship of the great British alto player Johhny Dankworth, Masekela was able to leave South African to pursue musical studies in England. However, he soon left for America where he quickly fell into the hard partying habits that would curtail his exceptional promise.

Indeed throughout his autobiography Still Grazing, Masekela seems to give lip service to the evils of drug abuse, but describes coke and cognac fueled binges with something between braggadocio and nostalgia. He speaks of going clean, but it is not entirely clear when that happened. Such habits were not without effects. Masekela recorded some enjoyable albums, particularly for his Chisa label, including his biggest hit “Grazing in his Grass,” but later efforts, particularly those on Casablanca, are disappointing attempts at hit-making. Masekela has yet to make a truly heavy musical statement, with the depth and heft of his elders, like Armstrong and Dankworth.

Masekela aligned himself with the ANC and the Communist Party. Until the fall of Aprtheid, he found himself in exile from his homeland. Still Grazing reflects quite a bit of pro-Communist, Anti-American sentiment. There was however, one telling anecdote from a tour of late Glasnost, Communist Moscow:

“The maid in the hotel refused to clean my suite, claiming she could never work for a black man. Miriam and Paul’s CD players, Cds, and clothing were stolen from their VIP suites. On departure, some of the porters at the airport refused to carry our bags and equipment, and the airport staff treated us like shit. For the first time during my thirty years in exile, I preferred to be in apartheid South Africa than in racist Russia. It was the worst bigotry I had ever encountered.” (p. 350)

Reality can be a real buzz kill.