Hugh Masekela, perhaps one of the two most globally popular South African anti-apartheid activists and musical icons (the other being Miriam Makeba) died, in January, at the age of 78 in his home town of Johannesburg. Novelist Brian Chikwava * recalls a strange meeting with the 'Father of South African jazz' in London some years back.
Hugh Masekela came from a part of the world where, uniquely, folklore paints the railway train as a generator of heartache: it breaks families up, taking away fathers, brothers and lovers never to be seen again. It seems therefore natural that his first recording, Sumela, turned the train trope on its head.
In Stimela, migrant labourers curse when they hear the sound of the train that delivered them to Johannesburg. The recording insists that people had to be dispossessed and their worlds scattered in the wind in order to create the pool of labour that was essential to the gold mines on which white wealth and power were built.
It was only because of their desperate circumstances that the men board the stimela, the train that ferries them to Johannesburg, delivering them as migrant labourers at the mercy of the mining industry.
Stimela remains one of Masekela's most complete recordings, a moving and powerful anthem against injustice. It became the centrepiece of his later concerts where he would recreate the sounds of the steam train, from its screaming whistle on arrival and departure, its tooting, right through to the percussive motion rhythms as it choo-choos away.
When he came to the London Jazz Festival in November 2010, I contacted the festival organisers, Serious, asking for an interview with him. It was a shot in the dark, I expected to hear nothing back.
Nevertheless, clinging on to a faint hope that the interview might come through, I sat down to prepare my line of questioning, wondering what would be the ideal period in Masekela's life to start the interview with. I settled on 1968, the year his Grazing in the Grass topped the US charts, ahead of the Rolling Stones' JumpingJack Flash.
Then my mind shifted. I had attended nearly all of Masekela's London concerts in recent years. During that time, my attention had been drawn to his stage manner, his presence. Masekela pacing about the stage, flugelhorn in one hand or just pensively holding a cowbell, was on its own a riveting sight.
It is said of great performers that by their mere presence they change everything around them: it is not just the musical...