Playing the Soundtrack of Our Lives

There are many contemporary musical artists around whose work touches us deeply, inspires us, motivates us, tells our life stories in their lyrics and songs. We think of them as playing the soundtrack of our very lives.

A select few musicians in the world, though, rise to the status of soundtrack-makers for entire cultures, peoples and nations. Hugh Masekela, the South African jazz trumpeter who passed on recently at the age of 78, is among that highly regarded level of musical giants. His music was the soundtrack of a nation-in-the-making, South Africa, and spoke directly to countless numbers of people around the globe, especially in the African diaspora.

Reflecting on the recent passing of Masekela, I find that a good part of the soundtrack of my own life too has been played by this musical maestro.

My first encounter with Hugh Masekela came at the ripe young age of nine years old, back in the summer of 1968, when his song “Grazing in the Grass” hit the top of the charts in the United States and became the No. 1 song on the radio. I can still remember how that song, with its irresistible groove and trumpet lines, seemed to be everywhere; where I was growing up, in California, you couldn’t turn on a radio anywhere without hearing it.

That was no small feat, mind you, for an instrumental song like this one that had no singing and was heavily African-influenced. “Grazing” was competing with lots of other pop/rock tunes in the American media at the time, and it somehow broke through all the marketing BS of the music biz and was warmly embraced by the people, especially in the U.S. Black community. A few months later, The Friends of Distinction, an American vocal group, did a soulful cover version of “Grazing in the Grass” that kept “Grazing” high on the charts and all over the radio airwaves for us well into 1969.

Masekela had first been based in New York, having relocated from apartheid South Africa to the U.S. through the help of entertainer Harry Belafonte and others. By the time “Grazing in the Grass” and the album it came from, The Promise of a Future, hit it big, Masekela had already headed out west to live in California. The times were a-changing, and the white hippie counterculture over on America’s so-called Left Coast wholeheartedly embraced Masekela and his music as well.

Each one of us has a favorite time of life when the music we are exposed to affects us in profound ways and ends up staying with us forever. For me, that special time was the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s — roughly the five-year period between 1967-68 and 1972-73. The music being played on the radio, on TV, in our homes, at school, wherever, was wonderfully diverse, socially conscious, beautiful, grooving, and yes, groovy. That’s the time of my life I will always remember as having produced the best music; nothing else will ever top that. It was the soundtrack of our lives. And Hugh Masekela was undoubtedly an important part of that scene.

Masekela lived for several years on the U.S. west coast and produced some great music, both for the major U.S. record labels and for Chisa, his own small, independent record label. At the same time, he stayed true to his African jazz roots, achieved success on his own terms, and did not sell out to commercialism and the power of the almighty American dollar, which I think many of his fans respected. Still later, he relocated to African countries and continued making even better music. Most importantly, he never stopped speaking out publicly about the injustices inflicted on millions of his people back home in South Africa who were still being oppressed under the system of racial segregation known as apartheid.

And that’s where I reconnected with Masekela and his music again in a much deeper way. In 1987, nearly 20 years after “Grazing in the Grass”, I happened to come upon Masekela’s CD Tomorrow in a record store in Kyoto, Japan. I loved it. Buttressed by two live tracks recorded in the southern African nation of Zimbabwe as part of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” concert tour, Tomorrow was filled with studio tracks that burned from start to finish. (Have a listen to the album in its entirety here.)

By that time in my life, I was involved with the anti-apartheid movement in Japan and had decided to use my writing for socially relevant purposes instead of just for making money. So, in finding Masekela’s Tomorrow recording (or maybe it found me) with its focus on the situation in South Africa, I was back once again within the circle of international fans of Masekela and his music, and that’s where I would stay until the end of Masekela’s life on 23 January 2018. It has been a memorable journey indeed.

Masekela was one of the few musicians I had really hoped over the years to interview here in Japan, or at least to see live in concert. The closest I ever got to that, though, was catching a live show by Masekela’s former wife, the singer Miriam Makeba, at a small live house in downtown Osaka in the early 1990s. Makeba gave us an unforgettable performance that evening, but the rather dingy club setting seemed to me to be unworthy of hosting the reigning queen of South African music, as she was then known around the world. But I never did catch up with Hugh Masekela before his passing, one of my great regrets in life.

Much of the world’s media coverage of Masekela’s recent death hailed him as “the father of South African jazz music”, but that is incorrect. The title of the father of South African jazz music actually goes to a man who preceded Masekela by a generation, and his name was Kippie Moeketsi. As a saxophonist, Moeketsi had a great influence on younger South African jazz players like Hugh Masekela, who often credited him as an inspiration. So, just to get the story straight for the media: Moeketsi was to South African jazz what saxophonist Charlie Parker (Bird) was to U.S. jazz — the pioneering father of modern-day music who paved the way for so many talented young musicians to follow.

Hugh Masekela himself continued recording and performing almost to the end of his days. His last album, No Borders, released in 2016, ranks rights up there with the best of his many works that span a lifetime of prolific musical creativity and active social engagement. Listen to a bit of No Borders here on iTunes and you’ll see just what I mean.

There is a wealth of great performances by and interviews with Masekela to be found on the Internet, and you’ll find a number of them here on YouTube. But my favorite Masekela interview is a rather obscure one from the 1970s that appears as track #26 on the CD 175 Progress Drive, featuring audio commentary and radio reporting by African-American journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, before Abu-Jamal was unjustly imprisoned in 1982 in the United States (he still remains behind bars; demand his freedom).

Part of that interview with Masekela goes like this….

Abu-Jamal: How have you seen yourself as a musician?
Masekela: I think of myself more as a very grateful person. I’m grateful to God that I have the gift that I have. I look at it as a very spiritual thing; I give it a lot of respect. I’ve played with musicians who are very respectful of that [kind of gift], and I have a great reverence for it. So, I don’t really have what you would call a very complicated “vision” of it. I don’t think of myself as a cultist figure. I don’t think of myself as a person with a “mysterious” situation. I think of myself mostly as a part of the international Black community — that is my inspiration.

The late Hugh Masekela (1939-2018) shared his inspiration with the world over the course of many decades, and we are all the richer for it today. He was a modern-day master storyteller with his music, in the finest tradition of the ancient African griot. The magic that he and so many other influential musical artists have created in our time have shaped, molded and helped make us who we are. They not only played their music — they played our lives too. It is the kind of soundtrack music that, at the end of a day, makes us feel appreciative of just being alive. And that has to be the greatest gift of all.

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