The Honorary Doctorate in Music, which was awarded to Masekela by UKZN, is the appropriate recognition for the incredible role Dr. Hugh Masekela has played as a world class performer and entertainer. But it doesn’t enhance his legendary status, it only serves to confirm it.
When I called the newly ordained doctor a few weeks before the April 3rd announcement, while he was hanging out somewhere in Kwa-Zulu Natal, he mentioned it only in passing, as if it were just another day. He knows his worth.
Although he recently flew to Morrocco for the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s concert, Masekela has generally been laying low of late. “Last year I cut down my performances because the travelling was becoming strenuous. I’ve been doing it for long enough and I’m slowly getting more involved in in television and film productions.”
Last year, Masekela also released No Borders, his umpteenth album in a recording career that shows no signs of slowing down. It’s an album that sees a contemplative Masekela displaying the rich, joyful sound that’s characterised his music for decades. “We made it over a year, and I worked closely with Kunle Ayo,” he explained. “I played all the piano and he played all the guitar, then we added everybody else once the songs were moving.” He’d previously worked with Ayo on two albums for other artists and thought it necessary to work together with him on his own. Legendary guitarist, Themba Mokoena is also a fixture on the project, featuring on four songs.
Masekela recently shot the video for Heaven In You, a song which features the mercurial J'Something. “He’s a wonderful young man, talented and keen to learn. We’ve become very good friends. He’s also a great chef, so we have a lot of food,” he laughed. “We’re planning a few things together. We’re gonna do another duet together for one of the songs I wrote called Too Late For Xenophobia.”
Unity is a major passion of his, and the overarching theme of the album. He told of how, when they were in Yeoville shooting the second half of the video, they walked up and down Rockey street and witnessed a host of African nationals living together in harmony and trading freely amongst other South Africans. “It feels like a major no borders community and it was a joy to see that. What we’re trying to do in extricating these people from our country will never happen because they’re ensconced and happy together with our people. The atmosphere and environment is very beautiful and they all support each other. They’re the kind of community Africa should be.”
One of my favourite songs off New Borders is the slow-walking and bluesy One of these Days. I asked him how it came about:
“My friend’s son wrote it for me. He said it just came to him one day and it sounded like me. One day I was in L.A and he said, ‘I got a track and everything for your song man, it’s you.’ He played it for me and I learned it and I sang it.” For him, the most important song on it is the very first song, Shuffle and Bow, an anti-slavery song that talks about how Africans have been working for Europeans for 500 years and how it isn’t getting any better.
Soon, Masekela will be shooting another video, this time for Shango, a remake of a song of the same title which he had on his album, Sixty in 2000.
“All I did is I tried to pay tribute to the different African styles and the places that I lived in , which is most of West Africa, the Condo and Botswana. The album is sort of a summary of my personal cultural experience living in those countries.” Masekela says he doesn’t recognise the African borders because they are a colonial creation that has us fighting over the borders and protecting the colonial heritage.
Generally, he isn’t satisfied about the state of South African music, describing it as “the deadest time in our musical history.”
One of the few young artists he’s impressed with is Zimbabwean singer, Berita, who he worked with in 2015 on a single of hers alongside his friend of 35 years, Oliver Mtukudzi.
“Mtukudzi introduced me to her, he liked her very much. He asked me to play on the record and I did. She was still at school in East London, and I actually did my part there. Or it was in Port Elizabeth, I don’t know. Half the time I don’t know where I am,” he joked.
Next Friday Masekela will be headlining Khaya FM and Bassline’s monthly showcase at The Lyric Theatre, Gold Reef City. For this show, he’ll be playing a lot of the songs from No Borders and romancing the audience with a lot of the past favourites.
When I asked him about how he continues to be inspired to make music and perform at shows, Masekela responded:
“I’m not inspired to make music, my friend. I was bewitched when I was an infant. It’s never been an effort. I’m just bewitched with music, it’s witchcraft.,” to which I asked, so it’s inexplicable?
“I didn’t want to be a musician but I just kept singing,” he continued. “In fact I used to get punished for singing. My mom used to shout at me. By the time I was 14 I was one of the biggest records and CD’s collectors in the country. I’ve always been obsessed with music, I’ve never really had to try.”