Riffs on Freedom

Hugh Masekela at 70: The man who produced the soundtrack of the South African struggle looks back and ahead.

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CAPE TOWN—While the rest of the world concerned itself with North Korean rocket launches, the G-20 summit meetings in London and the brief embrace shared between Queen Elizabeth and Michelle Obama, thousands of music lovers—perhaps seeking some refuge from those issues and more—descended on Cape Town for its 10th annual jazz festival.

And although the two-day event featured 40 stellar artists including Mos Def, Dianne Reeves, Incognito, Abigail Kubeka, Jonathan Butler with Dave Koz, Maceo Parker, The Stylistics, Zap Mama, the main attraction was a 70-year-old legend who has sat in on his share of summit meetings and last week hugged nearly everyone he encountered.

Hugh Masekela, the South African musician whose music helped define the horrors of apartheid, marked his 70th birthday on Saturday, and it seemed like the whole country was celebrating with him, and not just with the man but with the power of his art to alter the course of history.

“In 1985, there was no artist anywhere in the world in any language that wasn’t singing free South Africa or free Mandela or down with apartheid,” said Masekela, who spent 30 years in exile during apartheid. “That galvanized the whole world to pressure their governments to stop being friendly with South Africa.”

The trumpet/flugelhorn player and singer best known for hits such “Grazin’ in the Grass,” “Ha Lese Le Di Khanna” “Bring Him Back Home” and “Soweto Blues” was feted at no less than five parties in Cape Town alone, including one lunch attended by more than 300 dignitaries, relatives and friends.

“Most of my wife’s family is here from Ghana,” Masekela said following his press conference on Friday afternoon. “We have friends from Nigeria; some of the children have come from the United States and other parts of Africa. It’s made me very, very happy. I’d like to turn 70 again!”

And on top of that, more than 10,000 people serenaded the native son with a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” following his concert at Cape Town’s International Convention Centre on Saturday. Not only were they helping him celebrate his most recent milestone, but the audience was also paying tribute to a man whose music inspired a slew of other entertainers to do the right thing.

Masekela’s music has always been politically impacting, but that hasn’t been his only influence.

“The name jazz is used very loosely,” he told The Root. “It has been imposed on every kind of music that is not classical or religious. I think South African music in general—especially from the disadvantaged communities—affected the world because people sang about the qualities of our lives. In the United States where they sing mostly about love—we sing in Africa about the qualities of our lives. And to a certain extent, in many African countries the political community fears the arts because it has been a commentary on the quality of our lives.”

Since black South Africans have been free for nearly 15 years, many artists are now singing and playing different tunes devoid of the struggles of the past or present. At 70, however, Masekela has lived long enough to know what can happen to those with bad memories or those who sleep too long.

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