People come around every now and then who kiss history with a warmth, authenticity and candour that seems eternal. Their being transcends places, contexts. It lights a fire in every soul that comes near the seed it has sown, sets crowds upon their feet, and puts smiles on the ordinary child’s face. People like these raise long dead hopes to life.1 Over and over again they confront us with the version of ourselves we aim to be. Africa has birthed many of these and one of them is a hero fallen yet again too soon, Hugh Ramapolo Masekela.
I discovered his music when I was 23, along with other stunning musicians like: Fatouma Diawara, Oliver Mtukudzi, Ali Farka Toure and Cesaria Evora. As part of my quest to discover new Afro-jazz sounds from around and beyond the continent, I found their magical music. Language didn’t matter. Their melodies settled nicely amidst my bones & took me places… As it is, music from the 70s has carried me through the first half of my twenties. If there’s a place I have sought and found enormous inspiration these past years, it’s been among these giants. Hugh’s intelligence and wit are impossible to miss. His voice captures you with a grip so strong, almost as if he wrote each song personally for you. Whether through his trumpet, flugelhorn or trombone, his sound speaks directly to your soul. It tells a story as alive today as it was then in the 60s. You can almost call him “friend”, as if every immersion in his music were a personal conversation.
My first and only honor of watching him perform live came in August 2016, at the first safaricom jazz festival I ever attended, in Nairobi-Kenya. I’d gone with friends who hardly knew about him or jazz-type music in general while I had only discovered him a few months before. I stood throughout his performance while they sat and watched, amused at how drawn into it all I was and making fun of my “old soul”. Hugh charmed us with the classics, Grazing in The Grass and Chileshe. I sang along to my favorite one -Stimela/ Coal Train- totally transported to another spiritual place. There is just something about that song! He kept us on our feet till the very last song right before midnight, after which he asked his mostly older crowd, “Where do your kids think you are?” and to peels of laughter and “We want one more” chants he added in his good ol Masekela voice, “It’s time to back home to your children!” to which the crowd gave up and roared with endless applause.
For a man whose artistry and activism has served and moved more than 3 generations of audiences, it’s right to say he was always here to stay. Regardless of craft, his spirit remains a guiding star to creatives across the globe and certainly one for Africa’s performing arts world. I think of the passion with which he spoke, played instruments and sang and I cannot but break into dance or smile. One of Africa’s many gifted sons and daughters sleeps eternally, having lived a life spectacularly dedicated to his motherland, told it’s stories authentically, and inspired generations of conscious believers in an Africa that is #NOTASHITHOLE.