‘Summer Of Soul’: South African Trumpeter Hugh Masekela

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We’re going to hear an interview from our archive with the late South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, one of the performers showcased at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which is the subject of the concert documentary “Summer Of Soul.” The film was released in theaters over the summer and is streaming on Hulu. Masekela’s record “Grazing In The Grass” was a No. 1 hit in 1968. Now it’s being used on a TV commercial for Allstate Insurance. In some ways, that record foreshadowed the international popularity of Afropop – African music influenced by rock, soul and jazz. Masekela left South Africa in the early 1960s to study music in London, then New York. He didn’t move back to South Africa until 1990, the year Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

After Masekela’s brief commercial success in the U.S., he spent much of the ’70s performing in African countries, touring with some of the top African bands. He returned to the spotlight in the U.S. when he performed on Paul Simon’s Graceland tour. When I spoke with Masekela in 1988, he’d just concluded a series of concerts with exiled South African singer Miriam Makeba, to whom he was briefly married after he first came to America. Hugh Masekela died in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2018 at the age of 78.

In his New York Times obit, he was described as a symbol of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, even as he spent three decades in exile. Let’s start with a clip from “Summer Of Soul.”

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “SUMMER OF SOUL”)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: From the African continent to the heart of Harlem, Hugh Masekela doing his thing.

HUGH MASEKELA: (Vocalizing).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: In Harlem, we were being exposed to linkages between Latinos, Blackness, Africa. And Hugh Masekela brings that together.

H MASEKELA: (Vocalizing).

SELEMA MASEKELA: When my dad left South Africa is during the height of apartheid – and he’s literally escaping apartheid.

H MASEKELA: (Vocalizing).

S MASEKELA: He comes to America and lands straight into the hotbed of civil rights. At the time, “Grazing In The Grass” was one of the biggest songs on the planet. My father realized there was this real hunger for Black Americans to feel and see and taste what it would be like to be African.

GROSS: Hugh Masekela played piano before learning to play trumpet. When we spoke in 1988, I asked him about hearing jazz when he was growing up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

H MASEKELA: No, you know, from the turn of the century, South Africa had ragtime bands and reviews and Dixieland bands because there was a big industrial boom there with the discovery of all the minerals. And as a result, I would say that a great onslaught that was experienced from the international money community, and they brought their Victrolas and records with them. And they brought their instruments. And there was radio and all that. So the Africans, as a cheap labor force, but also people who are like – who had ears for music, had a lot of access to instruments. There were brass bands. And there were like black bottom joints and shebeens and municipal halls where a whole lot of bands played in them. In South Africa today, when you walk around, this guy is called Jelly Roll or Buddy Bolden, Satchmo or Duke or Count. And, like, we grew up with Duke Ellington and Oliver (ph) and Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong and Buddy Bolden and Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver.

GROSS: You played in a lot of bands when you were growing up. Now, I understand that one of the bands you played in was the first Black show that authorities allowed whites and mixed races to see. What was that experience like?

H MASEKELA: I played in “African Jazz And Variety.” When I joined “African Jazz And Variety,” they were like a big touring review of 60 people. You know, and Miriam Akaba joined it about a year after I did. But it had all, like, the singing styles of South Africa. And it did also groups like The Woodpeckers, who were like a cross between rhythm and blues group, maybe, and The Hi-Lo’s, you know, the four freshmen with the township thing. And there was a comedian. There was, you know, a guy who could sing like Nat King Cole. One guy could sing like Satch. And there’s a lot of big stars.

But in certain towns, like in Cape Town, which was like a very liberal town then, and Durban, they would allow mixed crowds. But they would be so far from the townships anyway that only, I would say, like, people who had cars or access to transfer because the townships are about 15 to 20 miles out of town would be able to come. And a lot of people who had like what I’d call permits because when you were Black in South Africa, you had to have a night pass to be in a urban area – a white area after 9:00 in the evening. And you’d have to have a night pass and a letter signed by your boss or your employer if you’re a musician.

And so it didn’t make it very easy, but I don’t think there was ever excitement in South Africa and token – being, you know, sort of a token member of an integrated concert and integrated this and that, because the reality of the place has always been, I mean, I think South Africans are basically oppressed. South Africans are very clear when they focus on what they want. And I don’t think it’s so much to integrate with people as much as to be as free as them and be able to have a choice, just like all free people have, you know. When, for instance, the Immorality Act was cut out in South Africa, when people were not supposed to make love across the color line – and when they took that, they thought there’d be, like, a big onslaught of interracial coupling and all that. But people have basically ignored it because I don’t think that it encompasses their vision of what freedom is about or what freedoms are about.

GROSS: My guest is trumpeter and composer Hugh Masekela. When you left South Africa, you left on a music scholarship to study in England and America. How were you able to get the scholarship? And I should ask you first, did you plan on leaving for good? Did you want to get out of South Africa for good when you accepted that scholarship?

H MASEKELA: Well, when I was 13 years old, I saw a movie about the great Bix Beiderbecke called “Young Man With A Horn.”

GROSS: Oh, yeah, with Kirk Douglas.

H MASEKELA: Right.

GROSS: Yeah.

H MASEKELA: And at that time, I was in boarding school. And the school belonged to a community of monks from England called the Community of the Resurrection, of which Trevor Huddleston, which is Bishop Trevor Huddleston, and his head of antiapartheid and defense and aid, you know, in England, was the chaplain and the superior of this community. And they worked in health, wealth and education among Africans. And he was also kind of a hoodlum priest. And I was going through a very rough time with authorities at the boarding school. And I was called to him. And he said, what do you really want to do because you’re so young to expel? And I said, father, I just saw a movie called “Young Man With A Horn.” And if I can get a trumpet, I’ll never bother anybody again.

So he went to the local store and said, you know, I got 15 pounds. There’s a guy who might come and steal this horn if we, you know, can make a deal and buy it for him. And, of course, the rest was history. But from there on, I got into, like – you know, I was already pursuing. And I was a very big collector. You know, growing up with my aunts and uncles and my parents are all very, very big collectors of the breakables 78s. And I got into bebop. So at the time, I was 15, 16. I was playing with mbaqanga bands and was, like – groups like African jazz that went on the road, and township jazz and jazz groups and modern jazz concerts and mostly dance bands. But I started to become a student of bebop. And that pulled me more and more into, like, my horn and into, like, figuring that – I had such a deep love, you know, for – I mean, I had enjoyed Dizzy Gillespie. I enjoyed Louis Armstrong and, you know, trumpeters before.

But people like Miles Davis and Fats Navarro and, like, Clifford Brown especially just blew me away. And I said, well, I have to be able to go where these guys can learn to play like that. And I knew that, of course, the main destination was New York. I mean, there was people in Johannesburg who were jazz collectors who could tell you where Charlie Parker was playing anywhere in the States on a certain date and who’d be on bass and who’d be on drums. So, I mean, they were, really, very deep into it. And they could, like, skat along with all the songs.

GROSS: Well, when you got to America and you actually had some access to the people who you’d been listening to for so long, were you able to play with them? And did your rhythms, which were kind of African-based jazz, work well with theirs?

H MASEKELA: When I got here, I was really a – you know, a bebop player. But everybody and all the musicians that I met, especially, you know, Dizzy and Belafonte, said, well, you know, a whole lot of people can do what you’re doing, you know, as far as bebop is concerned. But there’s something else that you have from your home. And if you can sort of come to a marriage with, you know, what you have traditionally – or, like, just culture from your home with what you know about the music, you might come out with a hybrid of your own that people might be turned on to.

GROSS: We’re listening to my 1988 interview with the late South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, one of the musicians featured in the concert documentary “Summer Of Soul,” which is streaming on Hulu. We’ll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “VASCO DA GAMA (THE SAILOR MAN)”)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Vasco Da Gama, he was a friend of mine. Vasco Da Gama, he was a friend of mine. Vasco Da Gama, he was a friend of mine.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my 1988 interview with the late South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. In the U.S., he’s best known for his recording “Grazing In The Grass,” which made it to No. 1 in 1968. If you don’t think you know that recording, maybe it will sound familiar because it’s currently being used in an Allstate TV commercial.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUGH MASEKELA’S “GRAZING IN THE GRASS”)

GROSS: What was the story behind this song? Was that the song that you wanted to record? And…

H MASEKELA: I think the majority of the people who bought that record or danced to it are grandparents now.

(LAUGHTER)

H MASEKELA: No. This record – I went to Los Angeles in 1966 because of a record I made live at the Village Gate with the late Tom Wilson, who at the time was also producing Bob Dylan and Paul Simon – Simon and Garfunkel, among other things. But this record we did live at the gate. And it broke out after two years. We did it in ’64. And in ’66, it became, like, the No. 1 record in California. And I went there to play the first Watts Jazz Festival. And I had been playing as an opening band all the time at the village gate from time to time. And when I played the first Watt’s Festival, the night I played over 15,000 people came, and it was, like, a record attendance.

So I called my friend Stewart Levine – you know, later became my partner and produced most of albums. I said, man, this is the place we should be, not coming back. So I’m quite a big success in California. And in 1967, I recorded a cover of The 5th Dimension’s “Up, Up and Away.” And that went into the Top 30. And I started traveling all over the country. And I took a vacation and went to see my sister who was in university in Lusaka. A lot of friends who hadn’t seen me for seven years came from Johannesburg. And you know, they brought, like, tape and pieces. And when I came, they got a lot of mbaqanga music.

And the late Al Abreu, who played with me on “Grazing” in that quintet I had – we were in the studio doing the album “Promise Of A Future.” We needed about four minutes more on the album, and we didn’t have another song. And Al Abreu said, remember that? He liked it very much. He said, there’s that song, man, that you always play, that we always play, you know? We should try and do that because of that simple part. So I just showed the piano player what to do and sang the four notes to the bass player. And we did it in one take. And six weeks later, it was No. 1.

GROSS: You know, after that hit in 1968 that we were talking about, “Grazing In The Grass,” I think a lot of people lost track of you. You went to Africa for a long time in the 1970s. Did you kind of give up on America for a period there?

H MASEKELA: Not really. I mean, to a certain extent, coming from an oppressed people and having a major success at the level and the bruhaha to which it goes, you know, in its marketplace – and, of course, it was also a period of, like, anti-Vietnam War activity, and it was, like, the Black power situation. And conservative government had just come in who are, like, very anti-musician. And I’d been living in California. And I just felt that peak, but, like, that the success was irrelevant in juxtaposition to the position of my people. Although South Africa was inaccessible to me, I just felt like I should get back and just play somewhere in Africa. And I was crazy about the music of Zaire, you know, Ghana and Guinea and Nigeria. And I had a few friends there. So I gave myself an open ticket.

GROSS: Was that a good experience for you? I mean, what I’m thinking is, you said when you got to New York, that a lot of the jazz musicians who you wanted to play with said to you, do what’s unique to you. Play African music as well. Everyone, you know, plays bebop. Play what’s really, like, your music. And there you were in Africa, getting reunited with African musical forms. Was that a good experience for you, a kind of growth experience musically?

H MASEKELA: I think it was very spiritual, too, because it was a pilgrimage. And I was from Africa, but I’d never been there.

GROSS: You’d only stayed in your township.

H MASEKELA: Right, in South Africa. Well, and I’d been…

GROSS: Oh, around South Africa.

H MASEKELA: …All over South Africa, and I’d been to Botswana once. But it’s different, you know? I got – like, I spent seven years where I lived with, you know, the peoples of Guinea, of Ghana, of Zaire, of Nigeria. And I got to learn the languages and, you know, the slang and the way to walk and talk and just the culture and tradition there. And it was a great revelation to me, also, like, from a socio-political view. I got to know what Africa is like. I mean, I’ve traveled all over Senegal, Togo, Benin, Kenya. And there’s nothing like seeing it firsthand. And of course, once it bites you, you always have to go back. I kept making glimpses into this States with an African band from West Africa. But I was experiencing – I was absorbing the continent.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.

H MASEKELA: Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Hugh Masekela was recorded in 1988. He died in 2018 at the age of 78.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Our Summer of Soul series continues through Labor Day, featuring interviews from our archive with some of the musicians in the concert documentary “Summer Of Soul,” which showcased performances from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. The movie is streaming on Hulu. This week, we dedicated one of our shows to Aretha Franklin, who’s portrayed in the new biopic “Respect,” starring Jennifer Hudson. We featured my interviews with Aretha, Jerry Wexler, her producer at Atlantic Records, and Dan Penn, who wrote the song “Do Right Woman” (ph). If you missed that show, you can find it on our podcast, along with this week’s interview with Sandra Oh and plenty of other interviews.

FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today’s show. I’m Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “BAJABULA BONKE (THE HEALING SONG)”)

H MASEKELA: (Singing in non-English language).

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