Cape Argus and others, August 2007
Greedy. Selfish. Corrupt. Sitting in his comfortable hotel room the legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela is counting out what the calls the “defining characteristics” of humanity. “Cruel,” he exclaims. He forgot cruel.
The defining characteristics? Masekela looks up and gives a throaty laugh. “They are,” he insists. “When I say that, it’s not a blanket statement. But the people who fight injustice, who do charitable work, or who have goodwill – they’re always regarded as oddballs.”
He thinks for a moment and then decides on another tack. “Look at what we have done to the water and the earth and the music. We destroy everything we come into contact with. I wake up many days feeling ashamed to be a human being.
“I would rather be a dog,” he says emphatically, “or a bird.”
Here in Cleveland, Ohio, Masekela, 68, should have everything to smile about. At the end of a triumphant US tour he’s looking forward to a few days of quality time with his three grown-up sons, who live in southern California.
Then in a week or so, he hopes to fly to the Edinburgh festival in Scotland, where Truth in Translation has opened a three-week run to ecstatic reviews. He wrote the music for Michael Lessac’s chilling drama about the lives of the young translators who revealed the barbaric crimes of the Apartheid regime to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The production has gripped British audiences as much as it transfixed people when it premiered in Johannesburg almost a year ago.
But Masekela is remorselessly downbeat. Partly it is the common cold which has brought him low. Throughout the conversation, he sucks noisily at a bit of ginger root – “it helps to break down the mucus” he says tetchily. But it is our discussion of Truth in Translation which has really ignited his ill humour.
Lessac has told the British media that the show demonstrates South Africa’s ability “to forgive the past, to survive the future”. Masekela, who first began to workshop the music for the show back in 2005, takes the opposite view and believes passionately that neither the play nor the political reality in South Africa has achieved any such reconciliation.
“At the end of the play you still wonder whether reconciliation is going to work,” he says. “What is amazing is how the perpetrators almost reluctantly apologised – ‘I’m sorry, forgive me’ – because a deal was there. It’s the same old story. After the Allies overran Germany you couldn’t find anybody who supported Nazism. It’s the same thing in South Africa. You can’t find anyone who supported apartheid.
“The thing is that apartheid is there, even now it is still there. You can’t disconnect with it. That is like asking someone in Northern Ireland ‘have you ever disconnected with the Troubles’. Because the after effects and structures and the damage it did will take ages to heal.”
There are plenty of ironies in the situation, says Masekela who fled the country after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. For a time it was people like his own mentor Archbishop Trevor Huddleston who led the fight against apartheid. But eventually music came to the fore, a “ major catalyst” in regime change, he believes. “By 1985 there was nobody recording without having a song on their CD which said either ‘Free Nelson Mandela,’ ‘Free South Africa’ or ‘down with Apartheid’.”
His own song Bring Him Back Home became an anthem for Mandela’s release, and the musician himself returned to South Africa in the early 1990s ready to let the good times roll. Fifteen years later he sees only mediocrity in the arts, a few opportunities for corporate gigs and perhaps a handful of one night stands on home soil.
“The administration today are terrified of music,” he growls. “They deny it. They know that a musical commentary can put them at a disadvantage. They are not afraid of print and journalists, that is considered freedom of speech, but they are very comfortable with the absence of music.
“I am not bitter. I am disgusted. And I am lucky – I can work all over the world. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim, they spend most of their time abroad, because they can hardly play at home. What about those other musicians in South Africa? How do they make a living?”
For decades he has been an itinerant, though his home base is Johannesburg where he lives with his wife Elinam. Masekela owns his own entertainment group, publishing and recording music, which he runs with his 29-year-old daughter Pula Twala. Any commercial success puts him in a tiny minority among the black population.
“We ended up with less than 2% of the economy, less than 5% of the land. We are a free but poor people, he says. “Amnesia always sets in after freedom. People go from discrimination and oppression to dictatorship. It has happened in Angola, the Congo, it is happening now in Darfur, in Somalia, in Zimbabwe. It’s human nature. People fight for freedom and then they forget and oppress their own people. There are people in South Africa who have abandoned their communities.”
But surely he has felt elation, at least when apartheid crumbled? On the day of the 1994 election archbishop Desmond Tutu was asked by the BBC to describe his feelings and his response was “Yippee!” Didn’t Masekela have a yippee moment?
He takes a mighty suck on his ginger root. “I had that sense of it. But it was momentary. Because ‘yippee’ doesn’t change the way the way that bastards feel.” The settlement he says was “an agreement , a hard compromise”. There has been “no charity, no trickle down.” Even Mandela – whom he lists among his heroes – ultimately couldn’t change things in the ways he wanted.
“Mandela was bad for business because he was too interested in the quality of life for the poor and that wasn’t good for economics. It threatened all those people who had big properties,” says Masekela. “I’m not saying he made a deal to only stay five years but he might have felt that the visions he had were not going to be realised and it was better for him to resign at a timely moment. He definitely he didn’t get what he had hoped for.”
Are there any grounds at all for optimism? Well he has his heroes, Masekela replies. He admires Tutu’s ability to “ call the shots” of the government in South Africa. In the wider world he is drawn to the imperturbable dignity of the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. “At one time I used to admire Mugabe,” he muses. “When I meet him, if he will talk to me I’m going to ask him ‘What the f*** happened to you man?’
“But I describe myself as a pragmatist. I look at what is happening on the ground and how people are behaving. And usually what people say and do are completely different things. Because human beings, we are a bunch of hypocrites.”
He pauses, weighing up another list, the great musicians who can still lighten his gloom. He counts them out on his fingers: Makeba. Belefonte. Dylan. Marley. “I admired Miles Davis very much because he never bit his tongue - he always said what he felt. These are all figures who are not universally popular with powerful people. I admire the people the establishment hate. And I am not a favourite of the establishment.”
Is that a good sign?
“I hope so,” he says, standing. He has one more gig to prepare for and no more time to talk. “Sorry to bring you down.”