Everybody is posting Stimela on Facebook and Insta and Twitter, and I totally get it. The words that come with the posts are loving, and respectful, and sad. The words are kind. They are good words.
But the music – that’s why we are all grieving. It’s the music that spoke to so many of us, at so many times. The music that healed us, that gave us hope, that made us dance, made us defiant, that said “fuck you” at all the right moments, to all the right people. In a four/four beat, often without lyrics, always with soul.
Hugh Masekela’s life story is being celebrated post-humously by the world as news has broken of his death, aged 78 after a battle with prostrate cancer. The child from KwaGuqa township in Witbank who discovered the trumpet aged 14 and went on to not only master it, but re-invent Afro-jazz on a global scale, has no more breath. Tributes are pouring in, as is right, and follow the strand of a life lived a musician, a cultural activist, a musical ground-breaker and a mentor. Makeba, Mandela – now Masekela. Figures of inspiration, of grit, rising above an abomination of history. Gone.
But the music. That will live on. Grazin’ in the Grass. The Boy’s Doing It. Khawuleza. Chileshe. Always, those opening chords. The run of introductory lines, then the growing assertion of trumpet voice. The confident placement of a hook. The playful riffs around it. The generosity to other musicians. The deep, deep sound of Masekela in the belly of the earth.
Hugh Masekela’s music was the soundtrack to my life as a teenager, as a young adult and still now, not so much younger than his age of death. Funny thing to say, maybe, as a white woman growing up in apartheid South Africa. But I had the benefit of a friend who made me mixed tapes of his favourite music from when I was 15, and Hugh was right up there. Yes, Stimela. Alongside Lee Scratch Perry, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Sakhile, the Kalahari Surfers and the Malopoets. I loved his sound. I loved his message.
I have two enduring and endearing memories of Hugh Masekela in my head. And heart. The first was listening to Bring Him Back Home blaring out of a tape deck in a Volkswagen Beetle driving through rural KZN, just before Mandela was due to be released. The second was being flown to Jo’burg with my journalist colleague Krisen Pather to interview Hugh Masekela upon his return from exile to South Africa in 1990. We were in a room of important people, but it was quite a corporate set up. A little tight. Krisen and I, young and excited, were firing questions. So excited. We were talking to our hero! Eventually time ran out – and Hugh invited the two of us to his hotel room to continue talking. I like to think he liked our spunk. He was voluble, happy, so generous, so giving. I was in awe. I think we drank a lot of wine. I think we smoked some happy doob. I think we may have missed our plane back home. I can’t even remember the newspaper I was writing for.
And I have never forgotten it. Thanks, Bra Hugh. For your music, your legacy, and that cool afternoon. Legend.