by Susan Kepecs
Two towering masters of South African liberation songs, Hugh Masekela and Vusi Mahlasela, come to Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater – together! – on Friday, March 6. It’s their “20 Years of Freedom” tour, a jubilant tribute to the date in May, 1994, on which Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa, ushering in democracy and ending 50 brutal years of apartheid. This is high holy music of civil rights, and it couldn’t come at a better time. You know why. The Supremes gutted the 1965 Civil Rights Act in 2013; Scotty is hell-bent on instituting the worst voter ID law in the land right here in Wisconsin; Ferguson; Selma, the story of a seminal moment in US civil rights history and the only movie that mattered this year, got totally snubbed at the Oscars (ok, it got “Best Song” for the John Legend / Common theme “Glory,” but come on, it should have swept up).
Like Legend and Common, and the legends of gospel, soul and R&B also featured on Selma’s soundtrack, Masekela and Mahlasela make music to cherish and celebrate. It’s part of who we are, too, since their civil rights movement and ours were – and are – a two-way street. After Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to Robben Island in 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. denounced South Africa’s savage white regime. “Free at last,” Mandela said in his 1994 inauguration address, echoing MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech three decades earlier.
The power-to-the-people joyful noise anthems of Masekela, Mahlasela and others were a uniting force in the resistance that led to the overthrow of apartheid. Not all of these songs are overt – Miriam Makeba (Mama Afrika), the high priestess of African song, was exiled for speaking out against apartheid and became a global activist for the cause, but she often sang traditional though usually jazzy songs in Xhosa, Zulu and Swahili – lightening rods that defied white dominance simply through the power of deeply shared culture.
Masekela and Mahlasela – the former in particular – often write potent political lyrics. “Some if greatest musicians came from some of the most racist eras in human history,” Maseleka told me in an interview I did with him before his 2008 concert with the Chisa All Stars at the Wisconsin Union Theater. “The great example is Louis Armstrong, who was born in New Orleans at a tragic, racist time, but brought so much joy to the world. Many artists start to find the quality of joy when they’re oppressed and inspired. The songs people like come from some force that has universal appeal. My songs aren’t my doing. I get them from the forces of inspiration and my African resources. I’m just a channel for the people I come from.”
Masekela, the grand old man of township jazz with his wailing horn and his gravelly, patinated voice, was born in 1939 in the coal-mining town called Witbank, east of Johannesburg. There his grandmother brewed sorghum beer and ran a shebeen (speakeasy) for the miners. When he was eight the family moved to Alexandria Township, a cosmopolitan slum that he describes (in the autobiographical liner notes on his 1993 album, Hope), as being a mecca for music and soccer, with a wildly multiethnic population. “[It was] teeming with gangs, rife with crime, the best hideout for fugitives running from the law, the bedrock of the African National Committee’s defiance campaigns.”
As a teen in the early ‘50s Masekela got hooked on American musicians – Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Mahalia Jackson, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Bud Powell. At the movies, he saw Young Man with a Horn, in which Kirk Douglas plays a jazz-age trumpet player. That sealed Masekela’s ambition. From the anti-apartheid Anglican bishop Trevor Huddleston, who ministered Johannesburg’s townships in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the young Masekela received a beat-up old trumpet. With that horn he joined township dance bands and, with a handful of other young musicians, put together the first bebop combo to record in South Africa, the Jazz Epistles.
On the heels of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre (in which 69 anti-apartheid protestors were shot by police) Masekela split for the States. That was also the year of the first lunch-counter sit-in, at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C.
“I was brought to the US by Miriam Makeba, my childhood friend,” Masekela told me in that 2008 interview. “When I arrived there I was looking to play with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. So many jazz trumpet players worked with him – Clifford Brown, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard – I thought I might have a chance there. But I didn’t get it. My destiny was Africa. Miriam used to tell me, ‘If you play New York jazz you’ll be just another jazz musician, but if you put the music of home in it you will stand out.’
“It was very hard for me to make that transition, but it opened a great window. I had to stretch my memory for my township dance-band days, but I was pleasantly surprised by how that music was received.”
Masekela’s first album, The Emancipation of Hugh Masekela, was recorded on his own label, Chisa, in 1966. But it was his second release, Promise of a Future (Chisa, 1968) – the one with the chart-buster “Grazin’ in the Grass” – that made him famous.
A year before Emancipation came out, Mahlasela was born in Mamelodi township, outside Pretoria. A humble poet of stripped-down mbaqanga and township jive, and a helluva guitarist, Mahlasela, who cites Mama Afrika as his greatest influence, possesses the most incredible vocal range that flows from deep tenor to Motown-like falsetto, with an occasional low growl. But he’s called “The Voice” not just because he can sing like gangbusters, but because he gives voice to the movement for peace, freedom and justice in South Africa and around the world.
Mahalesela’s activisim was triggered by police brutality unabated a generation past Sharpeville. “I was 11 in 1976,” he said from the Wisconsin Union Theater World Stage at the Sett, Union South, during his 2013 show there. “On June 16 there was a student uprising – the youth changed the politics of South Africa. I joined the movement. The police rounded us up every year on the anniversary of the uprising. My grandmother protected me – when the police came she turned off all the lights in the house and opened the kitchen door and she told them ‘Vusi’s here and you’re not going to take him! I’ve got a pot of boiling water and the first one who comes in here gets it!’”
Unlike Masekela, Mahlasela, though he was often arrested for writing protest songs, never left the townships. “In 1984, when Dr. Tutu won the Nobel Prize,” he said that night at the Sett, “we were celebrating in Soweto – the United Democratic Front [a student-worker-church alliance closely tied to Mandela’s African National Congress]. I was there. Somebody in the crowd was carying a poster of a face. It was Zindzi Mandela, one of Nelson’s daughters, who read a letter by Nelson telling us to keep up the struggle. We found out that what she was carrying was a portrait of Mandela! We didn’t know how our leaders looked – they’d been imprisoned on Robben Island since before we were born. It was so exciting to see that picture! We were shouting ‘¡Viva Nelson Mandela! ¡Viva!’
Mahlasela wrote his most famous anthem, “When You Come Back,” for those heroes he’d never seen. He sang it, a decade later, at Mandela’s presidential inauguration.
For the upcoming concert, I was able to catch up with Masekela and Mahlasela via email. This sort of interview lacks the flow of a phoner or live conversation, but in their writing styles there are glimpses of the differences in their historical perspectives and their offstage personalities in that lend a new dimension to their performance partnership.
CulturalOyster: This is heaven – the two of you together in one concert – and singing freedom songs, including some of your own. It’s like going to church for us old lefties in the States. The two of you have shared the stage before, I believe – were you both onstage when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated?
Mahlasela: Thank you. Heaven! Quite a compliment. I don’t believe Hugh performed at the inauguration.
Masekela: I was on tour in the US and Europe with the late, magnificent Miriam Makeba. Our group voted [for Mandela, for president] at the United Nations in NYC.
CulturalOyster: How did the idea for this tour come about?
Masekela: I have always admired Vusi’s wonderful voice and wished to work with him. One day my agent at Opus 3 artists called me to talk about this tour. Be careful of what you wish for because you might get it.
Mahlasela: Hugh and I have long been musical comrades at home in South Africa, and we’ve done a few one-off shows together here and there, but never an extended tour. We thought it would be fun to put our heads together and honor the music that was so important during the struggle and after the struggle. Music played quite an important role for all of us and it still does – we want to share that music with our audiences.
CulturalOyster: Mr. Mahlasela, in the 1970s when you were a boy Mr. Masekela, and Mama Afrika, too, were already very famous in the US. Did you know Mr. Masekela’s music when you were growing up in South Africa, or did you only come to know of him later?
Mahlasela: Oh yes, of course. I’ve admired bra Hugh for a long time now and have been inspired by his music and by his tenacity as a leader. And Mama Afrika as well – she was a true inspiration to me. I feel lucky that I often perform with some of the singers from her band, and I feel lucky to be on this tour with Hugh.
CulturalOyster: Mr. Masekela, do you mind if the audience sings along with you on “Bring Back Nelson Mandela?” Last time you were here we did, if I remember right, and we were still singing it in Madison days later.
Masekela: We love it when the audience sings along because we sound like a Joyous Army together.
CulturalOyster: South Africa still has challenges that Mandela was unable to resolve during his time in office. How do the songs of the struggle before he was freed and elected resonate with South African youth today – does this music still have a role to play?
Masekela: We do not know yet. We are dealing with current shortcomings for which no songs have really been written yet.
Mahlasela: We have to remind our youth of these songs, and not only of these songs but of their history. We have learned to forgive but we have not forgotten and that history is so important to what South Africa is today. But even if our anti-apartheid songs are just historical, music in general is extremely important. Our country still faces a lot of hardships (poverty, lack of education, continued racism), and music is a vehicle to send us all some much-needed joy.
CulturalOyster: Your styles are so very different in some ways – yet there’s township jive, mbquanga, all the classic South African elements, in both of you. How do you see your collaboration? And how will this concert work – are you performing together, separately, or both?
Masekela: We are performing together as a duo and the audiences are loving it. We are both children of the townships and are comfortably at home together with what we are doing.
Mahlasela: We’ll cover all those styles you mention. It’s a collaborative show with a collaborative band, so it’s not as if you’ll see my show and then Hugh’s show—it’s one big joint show. We play some of my music, some of Hugh’s, some Miriam – it’s a big mixture of it all. It’s a really fun night of music and a great opportunity to share these songs that we find so important with the rest of the world. Whether we’re on the stage or riding around from gig to gig, this tour is really fun for us. We all keep each other laughing and playing great music.