I bought my first Hugh Masekela album when I was 16 with pocket money painfully saved from boarding school. The album, was called “The Boy’s Doin’ It” and had a high-octane Afro-funk party favourite called “Ashiko”.
But there was another reason why I had to have the Masekela album. You see, he’d recorded it with the most happening band in Ghana at the time—Hedzoleh Soundz. In Ga, which is my mother tongue, “hedzoleh” means “peace”.
Hedzoleh Soundz was the resident band at a popular Accra nightclub called The Napoleon.
The club was owned by Faisal Helwani, a man considered by many as Ghana’s answer to Quincy Jones. Musically speaking, he was a bit like Midas: whatever he touched turned into gold. And the liaison between his marquee band and Hugh Masekela was golden before it turned toxic in later years.
Anyway, I was too young to be allowed anywhere near The Napoleon, so the next best thing was to have a record featuring the Afro-fusion house band.
I’d be lying if I said I was big on Hugh Masekela at the time. But the more I listened to his record I’d bought with my hard-saved money, the more I fell in love with his groove and with his distinctive trumpet sound. Before I knew it, “Excuse Me Mama” and “In the Jungle” had replaced “Ashiko” as my favourite tracks on the 12-track album.
That prompted me to go back in time to search for his other music.
Which was how come I came across a record that was qualitatively different from “The Boy’s Doin’ It”—Hugh Masekela and the Union of South Africa. Released in 1971, it featured Jonas Gwangwa on trombone, Caiphas Semenya on alto sax and Hugh on trumpet. It opened the window into a musical form I did not know existed—South African jazz.
Until then, I had no idea Africans were capable of jazz, perhaps because all I had heard as a boy growing up, thanks to my Uncle George, was the jazz of Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Louis Armstrong, Wes Montgomery…
Now here was a man who was putting his marker as well as his fingerprints on jazz and doing it with aplomb, sass and verve.
That was the start of a 43-year-long relationship with the music of Hugh Masekela.
With time, I started to realise that Bra Hugh, as he came to be affectionately known, was more than just a musician. Behind the passionate trumpeter was a political activist with a mind of his own, a voice of his own and a commitment to the liberation struggle in his native South Africa—a country he had had to leave in order to wage his war against apartheid on an international front.
One particular experience comes to mind. The date: 11 June 1988. The place: Wembley Stadium, London, England. The occasion: the 70th birthday tribute of Nelson Mandela.
I was among the ocean of people in the stadium who’d turned up for the event. Miriam Makeba took to the stage and started to engage with the audience, talking about events of 16 June 1976 when the children of South Africa decided to say “No” to apartheid. And then she said a song about the massacre was written for her by Hugh Masekela.
The band struck the beginning chords of “Soweto Blues” and Miriam Makeba took it away. My eyes welled up and tears started to roll down my face. I had heard the song many times, but it had not moved me the way it did that warm June afternoon in London. I don’t know whether it was Makeba’s emotional rendition of “Soweto Blues” or Bra Hugh’s plaintive trumpet playing that got me all tearful and sad. Whatever it was, that day, I felt a deep respect for him as a song writer whose music had singularly become the veritable soundtrack of the South African liberation struggle and the institutionalised injustice that came with it.
It is difficult not to be affected by Bra Hugh’s passing for these reasons and more. I can’t claim he was a good friend, a bosom buddy with whom I broke bread and liberated the odd stein. But he gave me a piece of himself I will not forget and for that, I am grateful because in so doing, he fulfilled a wish I had carried around for years—the wish to meet him, shake his hand and if possible, have my picture taken with him.
Opportunity came in May 2005 when Hugh Masekela was invited to Zambia to be part of the 100th anniversary of the Victoria Falls Bridge which connects Livingstone to Vic Falls Town in Zimbabwe. A day later, he was due to play a concert, his first ever in Zambia, at the Sun Convention Centre.
The Sun invited a number of journalists from Lusaka to attend and cover it and put a bus at their disposal to ferry them to Livingstone. I was also invited but I opted to fly down because I wanted a one-on-one interview with him away from the rat pack and the only way I was going to get that was if I knew his itinerary.
By the time I was arriving at the hotel, Bra Hugh, his manager, his wife and his band were just driving off in a courtesy bus to the Vic Falls Bridge. I quickly left my bags with hotel reception and told them I’d check in later. For now, I needed to give chase and catch a man I had waited half a lifetime to meet.
I caught up with them on the bridge surrounded by officials, including the Mayors of Livingstone and Vic Falls Town. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to get close enough to him under those circumstances to get even one word in.
But there was an ace I had up my sleeve that would prove handy—the knowledge that Hugh Masekela’s wife at the time, Elinam was Ghanaian. I’d never met her, but I had seen pictures of her in his autobiography “Still Grazing” and read about the interesting circumstances that had thrown them together in a most unlikely romance.
I recognised her immediately. She had torn herself away from the official entourage and was taking pictures of the depth below. I walked up to her and greeted her in Ga. She looked at me with undisguised surprise.
“You’re Ghanaian! What are you doing here?” she asked.
“I live and work here. Apart from being a huge fan of your husband, collecting as much of his music as I can, I’d also love to meet him and talk to him. Can you help?”
“Sure! Why not? When the official thing is over, I will call him so that you can talk. He has a thing for Ghana and Ghanaians.”
I stuck to Elinam like glue until she was able to extricate her husband and introduce him to me.
“Dear, I have met a countryman right here and he wants to talk to you.”
Bra Hugh extends his hand in greeting. I take it and shake it warmly and then I introduce myself. “In 1975, you recorded an album with a Ghanaian band called Hedzoleh Soundz. I was still in high school but I saved up to buy it. It was the first record by you I ever owned. I have it on CD now and I’d be happy if you could sign it for me, along with your autobiography.”
He just glowed at the memory. “Ah, you liked that album. Nice. I will sign it for you…”
And so started a long chat. Before I knew it, Hugh and his wife were inviting me to join them for dinner that evening.
We talked late into the night. It wasn’t an interview but I’d switched my mind into tape recorder mode, which is something old-school journalists do. It would have been crass of me to produce a note book or recorder at a dinner.
I asked him about his Lagos years, about the time he spent living with Fela Anikulapo Kuti. I asked him about his relationship with Caiphas Semenya and Jonas Gwangwa. I asked him about some of his more experimental albums like “Techno Bush” and “Working For a Dollar Bill”. I asked him about some of his most memorable collaborations, including the one with fellow trumpeter, Herb Alpert. I asked him about the relationships and friendships he’d formed with people like Stevie Wonder, Minnie Ripperton, The Crusaders
When he realised I knew a lot about who he was, where he had been and what he had done, he opened up and spoke easily. I tried not to drink, soaking everything in, knowing that once I got to my room, I’d have to write down everything he’d said before I forget anything.
By the time we were parting company for the night, he was introducing me to his band and inviting me to sit through their final rehearsal and sound check at 10 hours the following day. I thanked him and his wife for their generosity and said my good nights.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
I sat up for most of the night writing down what he’d said till my eyes couldn’t focus any more.
The next morning, I turned up at the sound check and watched Bra Hugh and the band go through their paces. They went on like that for two hours till he was satisfied. And then he relaxed and asked me to join them. That’s when I gave him my copy of his autobiography and my CD of “The Boy’s Doin’ It” to sign for me.
In the book, he wrote: “To Edem, May the gods of Africa always shine on all your dreams. With my sincere good wishes and warmest regards. Play, laugh, sing, dance, love, learn and teach. Affectionately, Hugh Masekela.”
Heart warming words in a book whose sentimental value cannot be expressed in prose. I have read “Still Grazing” twice and some of my favourite parts of it a few more times.
Sadly, the ending of Hedzoleh Soundz, a band he went on tour with the US with, wasn’t a good one. Bra Hugh writes in his book that many of the band members refused to return to Ghana and used the opportunity in neutral territory to tell off Faisal Helwani for treating them shabbily when they were in his employ.
“When he returned to Ghana, Faisal called a press conference, saying I had stolen his band and that he would never allow me in the country without making sure I was imprisoned.
“In the spring of 1974, I went into the studio with Hedzoleh Sounds to do a second album on which we were joined by two members of The Crusaders, Joe Sample on the piano and Stix Hooper on drums. It turned out beautifully and contained the songs “Stimela”, “In the Marketplace”, “African Secret Society” and “Been Such A Long Time Gone”, all of which have since become classics and audience favourites…”
He recorded a total of 47 albums in a career that spanned 62 years. He toured constantly and was due to have performed with the Jazz Epistles in Los Angeles, California on March 3 this year before prostate cancer claimed him at 78.
With such a tower of work to his credit and a concert schedule that was packed till his dying day, Hugh Ramapolo Masekela left the stage as one of the hardest working men in show business.
Go well, Bra Hugh.