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Farewell Hugh Masekela

RIP Hugh Masekela, who apart from being a hugely talented musician and renowned human rights activist, also got to hang out with the Wailers in Kingston during February 1969. The following extract is from my book Simmer Down: The Early Wailers Story, published by Jook Joint Press.

Nash and Danny Sims first met Masekela at New York’s Village Gate sometime in 1965, not long after he’d campaigned alongside Marlon Brando for the release of Robert Sobukwe, leader of the Pan Africanist Congress, who was languishing in a South African jail for speaking out against the Sharpeville Massacre. Back then, Danny and Johnny shared an apartment in Lincoln Towers on West 68th Street that Hugh says was, “always bubbling with beautiful women.”

He was still married to Miriam Makeba, and the two South Africans were considered the epitome of radical chic in New York due to their revolutionary politics and musical talent. Harry Belafonte figured prominently in both of their lives. Masekela had worked for Belafonte before bringing township jive to America, whilst his former employer had escorted Miriam to Kenya’s independence ceremony and then helped launch her singing career in the US. Apart from Belafonte and Brando, the couple’s friends included Dihann Carroll, Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne, Maya Angelou, Sidney Poitier and Miles Davis, as well as fellow South African music stars Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu. Alas, their vociferous opposition to apartheid came at a price. We’ve already learnt of Miriam’s problems with the South African authorities in an earlier chapter. In the meantime Hugh declared that, “the apartheid administration was painstakingly working with US intelligence agencies to make my life a living hell.”

Several years earlier, he’d been invited to return to South Africa as a guest (i.e., “honorary white”) so he could “witness all the marvellous changes taking place at home.” Masekela had angrily refused, saying he could never accept such an offer whilst the regime continued to “persecute, jail, banish and murder my people in the name of white supremacy.”

He and Miriam had separated by the time Danny Sims invited him to Jamaica. He was a marked man by then, and the constant surveillance was getting on his nerves. His phone had been tapped, and the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and US drug enforcement agencies were all monitoring his activities. A Caribbean holiday would therefore be most welcome, and he gladly accepted the offer.

“One day I flew down to Jamaica with Danny and spent a glorious week at the Blue Mountains’ house, which was always full of stunning women and Rasta dudes who kept ganja pipes “full and fired up” during every waking hour,” he wrote in his autobiography, ‘Still Grazing.’ “Working closely with Johnny and Danny’s company was a young artist named Bob Marley, whose compositions they were publishing. On several occasions I played the trumpet on Marley’s tracks. During the very first Marley session, I was sitting with Johnny Nash’s co-producer Reggie, who was from the Bronx, and Danny in the control booth, and I noticed that when Bob was singing, he’d do his fancy, jump up dance steps and often get out of range for the mic to pick up his voice. I finally said, ‘Bob, the mic don’t pick up the dancing man. Try to stand in one place.’ Later, I asked Danny and Reggie why they hadn’t told Bob to do that and they told me it had never entered their minds.”

There’s no mention of Peter, but Hugh played trumpet on the Wailers’ cut of ‘Love,’ which Peter had written and sang, and possibly ‘Rocking Steady’ as well. ‘Love’ was still a dirge but brightened by Masekela’s trilling, whilst ‘Rocking Steady’ is a paean to the rocksteady beat, and lightweight by Bob’s standards. These tracks, together with ‘Rock To The Rock’ (with Bob on lead and guitar) had been recorded with the Hugh Malcolm and Jackie Jackson rhythm section before being overdubbed in New York. Coxsone will later release a cut of ‘Rocking Steady’ after Bob’s death, although how he came to get hold of it is still a mystery.

Meeting Hugh Masekela and getting to hang out with him must have been quite an experience for the Wailers. At twenty-nine he was a little older and more sophisticated than them, yet they still had a fair amount in common. The South African township he grew up in wasn’t all that dissimilar from Trench Town, and he was more than happy to sit and enjoy a smoke whilst reasoning about current affairs and playing music.

“Back at the house we never stopped smoking ganja, which made me cough deliriously,” he admits. “It amazed me to watch Bob and the other Rastas take huge puffs out of the pipe. When they blew the smoke out, they would disappear behind the cloud that formed in the room. I just couldn’t get the knack of it. Anyway, we would get so high that we would be speechless and just sit there watching or listening to the rain.”

Masekela had studied at the Manhattan School Of Music, and was well schooled in black history. Although classically trained, he could play in any number of different styles, including soul, rock and jazz. The previous year he’d performed at the Monterey Pop Festival, sharing a bill with Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, the Who, Janis Joplin and Ravi Shankar. He’d also travelled to Zambia, where his sister gave him tapes of unreleased music from South Africa. That’s how he’d found ‘Grazin’ In The Grass’ – an instrumental he’d recorded as an afterthought, but which leapfrogged the Rolling Stones’ ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ to reach No. 1 in America. It’ll stay on the US charts for two months during the summer of 1968, building on the success of Miriam’s ‘Pata Pata,’ which had been a hit the previous November. The America market was embracing so-called “world music” like never before, which must have brought hope to the Wailers and stiffened the resolve of JAD Records in finding them a hit.

It was people like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba – black people of achievement who were committed, articulate, gifted and well informed, that helped shape the Wailers’ worldview. Like them, they knew what it felt like to be a victim of poverty and discrimination, and yet they could still take pride in celebrating their cultural identity. Above all else they had integrity. Hugh’s mother was a leading social worker in the Alexandra township and his family knew Nelson and Winnie Mandela better than most. Hugh had also met Malcolm X, whose call for greater self-determination had echoed the teachings of Marcus Garvey. Hugh described Malcolm as “handsome, hospitable and witty” and “gifted with an ability to gain your intimacy immediately.

“Malcolm X commanded awesome respect even from people who usually felt superior around blacks,” he continued. “He became, from that moment forward, a model for me of how a man of African origin should project himself.”

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