Bra Hugh goes in search of SA’s rich pageant

Cape Town 090404-South African music icon Hugh Masekela celebrated his 70th birthday on the Kippies stage at the Cape Town Jazz Festival. Picture Jeffrey Abrahams

Cape Town 090404-South African music icon Hugh Masekela celebrated his 70th birthday on the Kippies stage at the Cape Town Jazz Festival. Picture Jeffrey Abrahams

Published Apr 7, 2011

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The liner notes of Hugh Masekela’s opening track, Sossie, on his latest album, Jabulani read as follows: “An ex-lover castigates her other half for going into exile in Hiroshima and marrying a local who can’t dance and is an intellectual and very stiff person. In the townships, being unable to dance is a sign of dementia and total social bankruptcy.”

The final part of the lyrics captures Bra Hugh’s witty personality and incisive insight into life. Jabulani is a tribute to the township weddings of yesteryear, a time he remembers with much fondness.

“Township weddings are funny things,” he grins. “From the time of the lobola to the bride getting ready, there was normally a white flag which goes up in front of the houses of both parties. For a month beforehand, the people would rehearse the wedding songs and march up and down until around about midnight. As a child, it was one of my favourite times. There was special choreography for each song. On the day of the wedding the elders would give advice. I remember the ululating and the women sweeping the ground in front of the couple,” he says.

“Later on, as a teenager, I was allowed to join in the rehearsals. It was a great opportunity to meet people of the opposite sex. Unfortunately, with the violence in the early 1990s, those practices went away. So much has disappeared since then. My biggest obsession is heritage. From now on my work in film, theatre, music is going to involve heritage.”

Jabulani does indeed reflect South African heritage. But more than that, it is also a really great album – accessible light, poppy jazz delivered with careful finesse and just the right amount of playful spontaneity. The production, of course, is world class – in fact, the album is one of the best releases of the year so far.

But it is the heritage part which is preoccupying Bra Hugh.

“Years ago, Friday nights in my township of Alex, the Bapedi and Bavenda people would play the drums. It was a pageantry. However, the ethnic grouping killed that. The apartheid government divided us and fostered hate. Later on, everybody became a victim of television. Television is allergic to heritage. Twenty years from now when they ask the children, they’ll reply ‘we once were African’.”

“In Western culture, children go to ballet. There is Bach, Beethoven, who lived 500 years ago. Opera was invented 700 years ago. Yet these cultures are still retained. They were funded by the church and by royalty. Heritage has to be funded,” says the jazz legend.

“In Africa, we were convinced by colonialists that our culture was backward, heathen. Africans are the only people who imitate other cultures to the point of turning their backs on their own culture.”

The discussions moves to the latest youth craze, hip hop. “I went into music because I loved music. However, even when I was overseas, I never picked up the lifestyles of Count Bassey. But then again, hip hop is a lifestyle and once you are part of it, everything else is irrelevant. It is like for some, the only thing that is relevant is their political party, or their soccer team, or their religion.”

“Mario van Peebles told me his child was smart and then he started wearing those hip hop clothes and his marks started to drop. In the 1990s, a lot of children were put down for being smart in class. Mario went to the school and told them that its fine to do the ‘Yo!’ thing but at 50, you still can’t be saying ‘Yo!’ – you need to be educated to help make a success of your life.

“Another friend told me how his son got six distinctions, but told his dad that he wanted to be a ‘hey, ho man’ for a year.”

A ‘hey, ho’ man? Bra Hugh laughs and puts his hands in the air and starts swinging them from side to side: “You know, hey, ho, hey ho.”

Much mirth follows after that before he gets serious again.

“As kwaito disappeared, they didn’t arm themselves for anything else. I think they’re still in shock as to where they are now.”

He sums up his approach to his quest for South Africans to rediscover their heritage: “If you want to bring back heritage, you can’t preach it. It must be done through music. I am looking to bring those pageantries back, where eventually they will have their own amphitheatres… It can be done slowly, but it will grow.”

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