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Lucky to be Alive
Hugh Masekela

      ...musician and freedom fighter. Audiences around the world have been riveted by Hugh Masekela’s performances for more than forty years. His 40 albums have together sold more than five million recordings. He played a key role in bringing South Africa’s music and struggle against apartheid to the world. Mr. Masekela tells his remarkable story in Still Grazing:  The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela, in collaboration with D. Michael Cheers, who teaches at the University of Mississippi. When he is not touring the world, Mr. Masekela and his family live on a farm near Johannesburg, South Africa.

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Music and South Africa’s struggle for liberation are inseparable -- from each other and from the life of the great jazz trumpeter, Hugh Masekela. Obsessed by music as a boy in South Africa, Mr. Masekela escaped the oppression of his homeland when he was 21 to study music in New York City.  There he became friends with most of the people he’d idolized as a youngster and by his late 20’s, Hugh Masekela had a world-wide hit with “Grazing in the Grass.”

Keeping his eyes on the prize -- freedom for his people, struggling against the brutalities of South Africa’s apartheid -- is what helped him survive the mania of fame, Mr. Masekela’s says. (His working title for his autobiography was “Lucky to be Alive.”) The struggle for that prize is at the core of his life. And music was the foundation of that struggle, he says, ever mindful that it was a struggle fought by the whole world. Living in exile for 30 years, Mr. Masekela remembers that he may not have been ready for fame, but he was always centered: he knew that there were people suffering where he came from and that those people were, as he puts it, the people he sourced from. And wherever in the world Hugh Masekela was, he says, there were people pushing, like the South African liberation struggle itself.

Everything, Mr. Masekela says with certainty, is affected by politics. He lives by the words of a friend who insisted that as soon as you walk out of your door, you’re heading into politics. Mr. Masekela remembers another friend, Marvin Gaye, admiring the fact that Mr. Masekela -- who in addition to being a master trumpet player also is a powerful singer -- sang about things other than love. Where he came from, Mr. Masekela pointed out, there was no love. He hopes that he was at least a catalyst to his friend Marvin, who later made history with “What’s Going On?”

It’s a seamless transition from Hugh Masekela’s conviction that music was the real foundation of South Africa’s struggle to talking about his friend Paul Simon and the controversial “Graceland” tour. When approached by Mr. Simon early on, Mr. Masekela felt sure the tour would bring down the wrath of the apartheid movement. And that it did.  But in the end, Mr. Masekela says, “Graceland” was the first time in the whole world that music had an effect that rippled up the hallways of governments. And to him, “Graceland” will always stand as the highest milestone of how music affected the world.

More than a decade after South Africa became free, Hugh Masekela applauds the country’s leadership for challenging the nation to free their oppressors and to live by what he believes is the world’s most extraordinary Constitution. But Mr. Masekela saves his highest praise for the people of South Africa themselves.  He salutes their resilience and their charitability as a people, confident that the world will never be able to repay them for what they have done -- for all of us.

[This Program was recorded May 28, 2004, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Hugh Masekela died in January of 2018.

We share our gratitude to him here, along with links to a few of the many obituaries and tributes.


We all die. Some live on ... as ancestors.


Conversation 1

Hugh Masekela describes his musical life. He remembers how surprised he was by his early successes and considers what he learned from some of his mistakes.


Conversation 2

Recalling his grandmother’s advise when he left South Africa, Mr. Masekela describes music as the foundation of South Africa’s Liberation struggle. He expands. He tells a series of stories about himself and others, recalling the profoundly negative effects of living in exile.  Mr. Masekela describes the violence that was an integral part of apartheid, then recounts the travails of the Africkaner people -- apartheid’s architects -- who were themselves victims of conquest. Their tragic flaw, he says, was cultural, requiring everyone to learn and speak Afrikaans.


Conversation 3

When you take land away, Mr. Masekela says, you also take people’s culture, self-esteem and pride, as well as impoverishing them. He illustrates with stories of his grandparents, parents and neighbors. He describes the aftermath of apartheid, when the new South African leaders challenged the nation to free their oppressors, then work hard to build the kind of country South Africans envisioned. Mr. Masekela shows how South Africa has expanded this concept to the continent of Africa. He longs for Africa’s people to get equal billing with Africa’s beautiful animals and geography, then describes the huge need to reinvest after billions spent to destroy African culture.


Conversation 4

The conversation turns to music, including Mr. Masekela’s lifelong association with Miriam Makeba, and other legendary musicians, from Harry Belafonte to Louis Armstrong.  What always centered him, Mr. Masekela says, was to remember that his people -- his source -- were suffering. He tells a series of stories, starting when he was a child, which demonstrate powerful musical and cultural connections between South Africa and the United States. He compares his experiences with South African apartheid and America’s racial segregation.


Conversation 5

South Africa has set very high standards for the world, Mr. Masekela says, from calls to heal all of Africa to the beauty of South Africa’s exemplary Constitution. Everything is affected by politics, he says, and relates politics to music, from his own to Marvin Gaye. Mr. Masekela dreams of politicians being healed, as well as the world.  He recalls the “Graceland” tour of which he was a part, and declares that “Graceland” will always stand as the highest milestone of how music affects the world.


Conversation 6

Mr. Masekela pays tribute to the resilience and charitability of the people of South Africa. Celebrating 10 years of freedom in 2004, Mr. Masekela savors the sweetness of freedom. He salutes the people who lost their lives, limbs and families to be free.  The world will never be able to repay them for what they have done for us all, he concludes.



For several years during the mid-2000s, we produced 1 and 2 minute pieces for CNNRadio International and for the early incarnations of Three of those short programs were from our conversation with Mr. Masekela:
Music Circus South Africans


We thank Hugh Masekela for so much. His music is inseparable from his commitment to freedom and BOTH have sweetened the world as he helped bring us the joys -- and sorrows -- of Africa’s music.

We also thank Michael Cheers, with whom Mr. Masekela collaborated on Still Grazing.

And thank you to Charles Fishman of Charismic Productions, who made Mr. Masekela’s summer tour in the United States look easy (we know it wasn’t,) then welcomed us into his memorable circle of family and friends.

We bow to the powerful combination of serendipity and Esther Levine who together brought this Conversation to pass.

And finally, we thank David Russell, who searched the world to send us the world -- LDs (yes, Laser DIscs, the big ones) of Paul Simon’s magnificent “Graceland” and “Born at the Right Time” tours.

... and a little bit about the backgrounds of co-hosts Paula Gordon & Bill Russell.

Related Links:
Still Grazing:  The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela is published by Crown Publishers.

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