Remembering Bra Hugh Masekela

Hugh Masekela at Botswana Craft 2015 PIC. THALEFANG CHARLES
ôWho is here? Hugh is here!ö That is how Hugh Masekela was introduced to Botswana audiences for the first time. This was by none other than Dr Thabo Fako of the Sociology Department at the University of Botswana in 1982.

In case you are wondering, yes it was Professor Fako, the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Botswana who was the compere on that particular Saturday evening! Momentarily, the man himself, Hugh Masekela, spotting an Afro hair-style, showed up to a tumultuous welcome by an audience which predominantly comprised members of the student community.

The show was held in the then refectory of the University which was also used as the Student Union hall at the time.

Bra Hugh was accompanied by members of the local band Kalahari, formerly known as Mother, featuring the late Whyte Kgopo, Banjo Mosele, Aubrey Woki, and if my memory serves me well, Lekofi Sejeso on keyboards.

The show, which was brief but packed with action, turned out to be a fore-taste of a much bigger gig that was to take place later as part of the Culture and Resistance Conference activities organised by members of the South African exiles community living in Botswana in that year.

The Culture and Resistance Conference, hosted by the Botswana National Museum and Art Gallery, was in large part organised by the African National Congress (ANC) cultural desk in exile alongside organisations engaged in arts and culture within the South African democratic movement as a way of uniting activists and cultural workers to form a coalition of cultural resistance to Apartheid.

The events included a cultural symposium and exhibitions by both visual and performing artists.

Other cultural activists in the form of playwrights and poets who participated included Mongane Wally Serote, Mandla Langa, the late Keorapetse Kgosiitsile, and his former wife, Baleka Mbete.

On the music front there was Jonas Gwangwa, Dennis Mpale, Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Livy Phahle, Tony Cedras and Rampholo Molefhe. The conference was set to promote the idea of culture as a form of resistance.

To a large degree, the event led to the resurgence of cultural activism in the region in the form of interchange between and amongst southern African countries during the 1980s.

In the process the entertainment value and appreciation of genres like jazz and other art forms in the creative industries were enhanced.

Theatre, also became a big thing in the struggle, especially through the influence of such playwrights as Athol Fugard, Mbongeni Ngema of Sarafina fame, and others.

Bra Hugh and his band, Kalahari, became a regular on the local jazz scene playing such venues as Mogo Hotel, Club 500, the Woodpecker Inn and Oasis Motel in Tlokweng.

They had since been joined by Tshepo Tshola, who used to play for a band called Uhuru (later known as Sankomota) in Lesotho. Selolwane tells the story of how Tshola came to Botswana.

 “He could not go through South Africa for political reasons. So to get him here a small aircraft had to be chartered to fly him to Gaborone”, a trip which Bra John himself was part of. With the addition of Tshola, Kalahari was complete and was ready to take on the world.

Through Bra Hugh’s connections, and those of his compatriot, Jonas Gwangwa – who was leading another Jazz band called Shakawe, many other South African jazz greats came to play here. These included trumpeter Dennis Mpale, alto saxophonist Ntemi Piliso of the African Jazz Pioneers fame, saxophonists Barney Rachabane, Khaya Mahlangu, key-boardist Bheki Mseleku, and many others.

The prolific Masekela recorded a couple of albums with Kalahari during his stay in Botswana. These included Working for a Dollar Bill, for which

John Selolwane was instrumental in producing and recording in conjunction with acclaimed Johannesburg producer, Koloi Lobone, who produced the likes of Babsy Mlangeni, and others.

However, the most popular album that Bra Hugh produced with Kalahari was Techno Bush, which was recorded at Woodpecker Inn on the banks of Ngotwane River on the outskirts of Gaborone to the south. The album was recorded in a mobile studio imported all the way from London, courtesy of Hugh’s recording label, Jive Records.

Tracks on Techno Bush include hits like Motlalepula; Pula E a Na; and African Secret Society.  Amongst others, the lineup of Techno Bush included South African songstress Mara Louw, as well as members of the legendary mbaqanga group, Soul Brothers.

Bra Hugh’s stay in Botswana was cut short by the South African Defence Force (SADF) raid on Gaborone in 1985 which left in its trail 14 people dead. His own personal friend, George Phahle, who used to accommodate Bra Hugh in his house in Taung, was killed together with his wife, Lindi. At the time of the raid Bra Hugh stayed in Extension 14 and was just lucky to have survived it.

Following the raid, he relocated with Kalahari to London where they would be based. It was in London that both Hugh and Selolwane hooked up with Paul Simon in 1986 who roped them into his Graceland Project. After Graceland, Bra Hugh became part of the successful Sarafina musical cast which premiered on Broadway, New York in 1988, alongside the play’s creator, Mbongeni Ngema, Leleti Khumalo who starred in the play, and others.

In my chat with John Selolwane this week following the news of Bra Hugh’s passing, I asked him how he would characterise his late friend’s music. After taking a deep breath, he said, “You know Bra Hugh did not want to be boxed or pidgeon-holed. His music is about his life experiences. He always wanted to keep it simple.”

I could not agree more with Bra John. During the 1960s, when he lived in the United States, Bra Hugh interacted with the nobility of jazz music in that country. He consorted with the likes of Dizzie Gillespie, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and others, but they did not make him abandon his roots.

These artists were leading lights of the bebop tradition, and Bra Hugh himself often confessed that he was a “bebopper”. However, in order for him to stay relevant, he stuck to what he knew best: township music.

It goes without saying that like other genres of music, jazz has a variety of forms and styles. Many a South African jazz artist, including Isaac “Bra Zachs” Nkosi of “Our Kind of Jazz” fame, Bra Hugh, Jonas Gwangwa, Abdullah Ibrahim, the brothers Pat and Todd Matshikiza, and others, popularised “township music”, which took root in the 1940s and 1950s, and is now noticed throughout the world as a South African brand of jazz.

This style of jazz is a fusion of marabi, mbaqanga and elements of classical jazz form. Bra Hugh went further, with this jazz idiom and created his own distinctive style that separated him from the rest of his contemporaries to immortalise himself as one of the jazz legends of our time.

Indeed, when all has been said and done,  “Home is where the music is”, as Bra Hugh says in that track which he released in 2009.




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