The 73-year-old South African jazz musician Hugh Masekela shows no sign of letting up in his lifelong battle against injustice and oppression, finds Etan Smallman
Wearing a long-sleeved orange shirt and floral tie in the 36C Adelaide heat, Hugh Masekela says he’s in his “butterfly phase”.
But though his wardrobe may be evolving, the South African musician isn’t moving on from his campaigning phase any time soon.
At 73, he shows no sign of reducing his globetrotting schedule or his lifelong battle against injustice and oppression.
With homes in LA, Ghana and Johannesburg, he says he’s lucky if he gets back for three weeks at a time.
“I always make the joke that I go home, to one of my homes, to go and do laundry so I can go on the road again,” he says.
“I’m travelling more than ever. I don’t have the answer as to why, but the demand seems to have grown as I’ve got older.
“To tell you the truth, man, we spend most of the time travelling in hotels, in festivals, in concert halls, clubs, airports. The most unenjoyable part is all the security at airports. I think soon they’re going to have us stripping.”
Masekela was in Adelaide to headline the 21st WOMADelaide world music festival as part of the city’s annual Adelaide Festival.
Masekela has mixed with everyone from Bob Marley and Miles Davis to Louis Armstrong, Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando, but he is still most interested in the faceless man and woman in the street struggling for a better life.
“I’ve always stood on one fact – that all over the world, there are only two things,” he says, “the Establishment and the poor people.”
“The poor people are a massive majority and across the world they are exploited in different kinds of ways. The Establishment depends on exploiting raw materials and the poor.”
Masekela was a key player in the fight against Apartheid South Africa but he says his concerns are “more universal” now.
“Twenty years ago, I was part of a movement of millions of people who were going after freedom. But today, they look and they say, ‘what are the advantages of freedom?’ So far, it’s the vote and maybe in certain places lack of police harassment.
“And you can live anywhere you want and do anything you want – if you have the means. But for the ordinary person, they haven’t gained anything.”
Masekela says his wishes are “just too far-fetched for the normal human species” but bemoans humanity’s addiction to the screen, its impact on the music industry and its destruction of local traditions around the world.
“It has marginalised us to a point where we’re nearly all the same,” he says. “The thing that is being lost is heritage. In Africa, religion and advertisement and television and media hype have gotten Africans to where they are convinced psychologically that their own heritage is heathen, pagan, barbaric, savage, primitive.
“And the perpetrators don’t even have to work on it, because they have Africans themselves working on it and who are making money from it.
“If I don’t make heritage visible and the strength of mother tongue important for my grandchildren, it scares me that they might say in 20 years from now, ‘well it is rumoured that we used to be Africans long ago’. And in many urban areas, it’s already happening.”
Masekela says that as one gets older, “you can see that ranting and raving doesn’t help too much”.
He adds: “What helps more than anything is organising and finding the assets that the exploited people have and try and help them to develop those assets. In the case of Africa, it’s mostly heritage.”
The musician has resisted any technology compulsion, but has spoken in the past of his multiple addictions, admitting to “drinkin’, cokin’, smokin’ – you name it, all the kins”.
However, he isn’t so forthcoming today on whether he has given them all up.
“I think that is a crude question because, basically, it’s nobody’s f—— business what I do. And I do my work very well. I intervene with a lot people that I think have problems with substances.
“It’s not easy because we live in a very addictive world, and basically nobody is clean. Those that don’t use substances are always addicted to something else. Sometimes it’s running, sometimes it’s food, sometimes it’s sex. But I live a very enjoyable life. I understand what moderation is.”