How does one write about a man whose musical career spans nearly three quarters of a century? One whose musical career has produced jazz hits such as Stimela, Coal Train, Grazin’ in the Grass, Bring Back Nelson Mandela and more than 30 albums and a Grammy Award to boot?
How does one write about 77-year-old Hugh Ramopolo Masekela?
His presence is not just felt on stage—when he closes his eyes, cradles the trumpet and blows out rhythms that have mellowed kings and queens. His presence is also felt offstage as he struts into Michael Joseph Safaricom Centre, Nairobi, clad in a brown half-coat, orange African print shirt, brown trousers and shiny black shoes.
Reporters and cameramen swarm around the South African trumpeter, flugelhornist, cornetist, composer and singer to get a shot. He breaks into a playful jig.
Hugh Masekela then walks around the captains of industry, journalists, bloggers and jazz enthusiasts invited to meet him before his performance and hugs almost everyone.
As a rule, he does not greet people by hand, saying hugging is much more affectionate (in any case, he does not know where the hand of the next guy has been!)
The jazz maestro is in Kenya for the Safaricom Jazz Lounge, due Friday at Uhuru Gardens. Gates open at 6pm (+3GMT).
Asked what Kenyans should expect from his show, he had this to say: “Get your dancing shoes on, because our band makes people dance. I’ve been to Kenya five or six times and every time the audience has entertained us even more than we have entertained them. The love for music here is so great I’m thinking of defecting.
“Also, we are musicians; we can’t dictate what we play, the audience chooses. You just play a song and the crowd goes with it.”
He, however, lamented that Africans have become too Westernised, at the expense of their culture and heritage.
“We are not visible because we don’t have a strong heritage. Only the African landscape like Serengeti or the Maasai Mara are visible, and this is because we are not recognised through our music, cultures, dressing and such, because we copy too much from the West,” he said.
Masekela belongs to the same league as African musicians of international repute such as Miriam Makeba, Zimbabwe’s Dorothy Masuka, Fela Anikulapo Kuti of Nigeria, Hedzoleh Soundz, Francis Fuster and Dudu Pukwana. Yet this has not dampened his resolve or desire to see more beautiful music come out of Africa.
“All the greats to have come from Africa,” he said.
“Those who have stayed in the scene for long, like myself or Makeba, sing heritage songs. Yet those are not the songs young people are doing; they want to do fashionable music.
Saying that across Africa the jazz scene is picking up, he added: “There is an upsurge of people who want to learn heritage music lately, and I have seen very good jazz come out of Nairobi from people like Eric Wainaina.”
To keep himself strong, Masekela does tai chi and yoga, swims and is a swimming pool lifeguard.
The proceeds from the concert, will be spent on children from slum areas and those interested in music but cannot access training or resources.