In 1987, Neville Legg interviewed then-exiled South African musician, Hugh Masekela. Performing with Paul Simon on his epic Graceland World Tour, Masekela spoke with Neville about his youth under Apartheid, his musical aspirations and intentions, and the implications of the cultural boycott on South African musicians.
He also talks about the criticism of his involvement in the Graceland tour.
We found this interview on an old cassette, which was recorded on an old radio, so the audio quality is not perfect but we like it. For perfectionists, we provide a transcript here as well.
NL: Our guest on today's program is ace composer, trumpeter, Azanian patriot, Hugh Masekela. Welcome to the program. I wonder if you can tell us a bit about the Graceland tour, where and when did the tour start, where have you been since, and what sort of reception have you been getting?
HM: The tour started February 2nd in Rotterdam. We rehearsed two weeks before that in London from January 15th, and went all over Europe […]. Then we went to Harare for two days, then to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and St Louis […] And now we are here, doing Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne […] And then we are doing nine cities in United States, and that section of our tour is going to be a benefit section we are going to contribute to local homeless and especially children's charities in each town, and the United Negro College Fund. […] And July 6th I think we'll wind up the Graceland Tour, and we would have played for close to a million people over six months. We've only had sold out audiences, standing ovations and requests for encores. And we haven't been able to find the time to do other concerts. It would take us two years to really fulfill the whole situation. Since we are such a big cast, the expense is so high, it's not really too much of a profitable tour for anybody. The six months we have been in it is just about as much as we can take, cause it's like travelling with three football teams.
NL: It looked very crowded on the stage when you were all on.
HM: What people don't know is the crew is even larger than what they see on the stage.
NL: You've mentioned some of the things you are going to be doing in America with the benefits and so on, but what do you see as the overall purpose of the tour?
HM: From an ordinary point of view the tour is just like any other tour in that when there is a very big successful record, normally artists tour the people that are involved with it and then they choose their guest artists. With this one there was a great demand because the album has sold over 5 million copies. It was the first time South African music had gotten to that many people who otherwise wouldn't be interested in African music or South African music. And the fact they got interested in it kind of embroiled them in some of the political controversies that not only affect South Africa, but the tour itself. And these are people, like your middle-class barbequeing-on-weekends people.
What was funny about the Graceland record was it was a word-of-mouth record in that radio stations and even the record company at first were not very keen about it, and it kind of did it mostly on its own. It certainly didn't get any play in the States until it went to #1 in Europe. So people just liked it because, I guess, it was different. A lot of people were tired of the drum machine sound that they hear on other records. I think there was a certain freshness about the South African thing. […] I think this was the first time we were able to put together a state of the art band together with a state of the art technique, the technology, and take the music of South Africa to the world. I think this tour was able to do that. […]
Of course, the political reaction of the audience, we've had some negative reactions, which people are entitled to, from certain segments of the liberation movements, especially the African National Congress through the anti-Apartheid movement and the United Nations Committee Against Apartheid felt that Paul Simon should not have gone to South Africa and recorded some of the tracks that he did there, even though he had refused to perform there before. So we had problems with that, and that is an ongoing problem because the boycott itself was never really very clarified.
Aside from banning artists to go and perform in South Africa, which of course we all sided with because artists like Ray Charles, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Blood Sweat and Tears, Shirley Bassey, I could go on forever, they made a fortune. Frank Sinatra made 3.5 million in two days' shows. It's the kind of money that, besides making South Africa look like a cultural empire, it's the kind of money South African artists cannot make in South Africa. It's the kind of money we exiles cannot make or have access to. But besides that, these people just took the money and run and never looked around to see if there was any talent or any difficulties they could help with, and pretended that there was no oppression in South Africa, until they were confronted, of course, overseas. And they were forgiven by the same people that have been giving us a problem. They said, 'Okay you can keep the two million. That's okay, we don't care that you didn't see there was music there, if there was suffering, if you'd never heard of detention or anything like that, keep the money, as long as you came to us.' So the also 'us' has been faceless. But I mean, we still supported the banning of artists going there […]
I never really wanted to get involved in it, because it seemed like there was a committee somewhere in the world that had already made up its mind that they were going to control the affairs of South Africa, and South African arts and culture. The problem was how to find them. I think that when we got into Graceland these elements surfaced because it was the first time we were confronted, mostly by the gutter press, on behalf of the other elements: the United Nations, the ANC, the anti-Apartheid movement; but they themselves never really came to us and said you're doing this and that. It was a pity that we had to meet them in the press, and of course the press has never been more zealous with the South African issue than with this one. It's almost like they can't tell their Paul Simonses from their Harry Oppenheimers, so it was quite an interesting thing because what it did it brought things that were being done underground to the surface, and then I think the confrontation will help to clarify exactly what the cultural boycott entails and who are its authors.
When I went to U.N. I said, there is nothing that South African people respect more than any kind of solidarity they can get overseas but because we are not consulted at home, it would be great that if on issues like this at least delegations from our midst – both at home and in exile – be invited to the authorships of these laws, especially in the situations where they affect us, the artists, so then at least we can also have a word in, because otherwise it is like representation without consultation by people who mostly who've never been to South Africa or who, when they lived there, lived privileged lives or left when they were babies and really don't know what it is like to have lived under the brutality of South Africa. […]
NL: Your opening song, in fact, was a call for the release of Nelson Mandela, and, in fact, I thought the whole concert was a very powerful statement against the apartheid regime. You mentioned there have been pickets by the ANC and the anti-Apartheid movement. Do you think they are justified in doing that at all then?
HM: Well, I think that being inflexible in a situation that is not clear, and being dogmatic about it when you are standing on common ground with the people you are picketing, then not only is the divisiveness that is involved in it useless, but I think that the strength is all missed because we have done a very positive thing and there has been a positive reaction. So I think if they took the positive elements and looked at the positive reaction and looked at what their picketing achieves against this, I think that it is a situation that the movement, whether it be the ANC or the UN, they should have harnessed it and thrown it in the right direction, also take lessons from it, how it was done for future situations […]
They might be justified. You see all our liberation movements are basically like guests of solidarity movement hostage in every country they go. In Britain, and in most of Europe, the anti-Apartheid movement is really the hostage of the liberation movements and the solidarity groups here and everywhere else. And the solidarity groups have certain lobbies, so certain things might appear that they are against their lobby and that's where their inflexibility comes in. And instead of examining the situation and how much of an advantage it is to their cause, they first become emotional. In other words, they think from their hearts instead of their minds. They tend to react so emotionally, but it becomes an emotion that is passed on to the media, which reacts even more hysterically, because they are looking for scoops.
NL: They're not positively supporting the struggle …
HM: Yeah, they like the furore of the whole thing because it's gonna get them scoops, their names in the paper. I'm sure some are concerned but it's just a lot of gutter press. Investigative reports, come on... like as if Graceland hadn't been recorded South Africa would be free by now! That causes so much smoke that you wonder, 'if these people can be so obsessed by Graceland, how come they don't feel as strongly about Anglo American, or about BP, or Shell, or Consolidated Gold Fields or De Beers or all those mining companies and the farming and the multinational corporations that exploit the people and keep them enslaved and prop up the South African government?' […]
NL: Do you find it frustrating that you, as an Azanian artist, and that music – your music – and other artists get very limited exposure, even though the music itself is the best in the world? Do you find it frustrating that you don't get that exposure in countries like Australia or the countries where you really have to sell the records?
HM: No, because I understand my business very much, first of all the marketplace in Europe, the United States and places like Australia, which are basically all allies of South Africa. So that if you come with an anti-South African government message in your art and culture, you are not going to get the kind of support that they would even give their own native son. If their own native son does something like that, because he is doing it under the banner of their flag, it's a different situation all together, that makes it possible for a Bob Dylan or a Belafonte to sing a protest song, but a Miriam can be blacklisted as a communist.
The natural way that we are supposed to be successful is to be at home because we've got a big enough market at home not to have to travel overseas […] The Brazilians live like that; the salsa world and the reggae world, they're self contained. It is the exception, what is happening now, instead of the rule because what should be happening is that we should all be successful at home, occasionally we come overseas, if we want to. South Africa is that wealthy that we don't have to hustle so much. What we've seen over the last twenty years with the recognition of Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), Miriam Makeba, all the things that have come out, it's more or less that we've gotten token acceptance by an overseas crowd with a little dubiousness because we still come from what they look at as a terrorist conclave or sentiment. So they look at us as protest artists basically, even though I could come up with a la-di-da song about flowers and bees, and they'll see a hidden motive there. I think until we are free, our careers won't begin. I think the way we are right now, we are just artists in transit.
NL: As a musician, then, how will this tour benefit you?
HM: Well it benefits me in two ways. It benefits all of us in that we played together and sung together, and plan to work together a lot. I was in Botswana from 1982, and I got the record company there to bring a mobile studio so I could work, so a lot of the guys I know from then. But the thing is that it [the tour] has gotten us the momentum now. And of course the crowd will be interested if we give good performances, maybe buy records. We have built a basis, a foundation, a following. But I think that there was certain dominance with South African musicians not working outside, in the international forum, and just kind of provincialised at home, and this has gotten us together much more. Before this, we did a show in Zimbabwe […] with about twenty-five artists from home, and everybody got the same kind of adrenalin injection. What is obvious is that situations should be made possible for South African artists to be able to work together as effectively as we have worked together on this show. The ideal situation would be for us to be free, but before then I think that if other liberation movements or other solidarity movements don't look into this and see that there is something to be said about South African artists working together in an international forum, without too much berets and fist-clenching kind of situations. Because our culture is not just that of gritted teeth and clenched fists, you know, we are a wide spectrum and I think that all of it should be shown.
NL: Some people have said that if it wasn't for the liberation struggle, artists, or the sort of music that is produced by artists like yourself and Miriam and Dollar, would not have been of the calibre that it is. How do you react to a statement like that?
HM: Well, I don't know. I think the liberation movements or the solidarity movements, tend to sometimes have too much of a 'more militant than thou' attitude. They like to look at themselves as the political tastemakers and almost, like, sort of live in an atmosphere of electioneering. They're campaigning all the time as if we are already free. I think that that is one of the things that dis-unify us. These claims like 'we did that! We are doing this!' I think we are all one team, South Africans. It's the thing that is hurting us most. And of course, the multinationals and the countries that exploit us enjoy the fact we have so many organisations and so many different ideologies, whereas our enemy is common. So whenever there is a claim like this, I don't pay attention to them because we are all there because of the people of South Africa. And without the people of South Africa, none of us would be any shit. The liberation movements, the musicians, the artists, the athletes, we all come from the womb of the people, and without the people we ain't nothing. And in the end, of course, they are the ones that are going to vote for the government that is going to rule us when we are free one day. I think that is the day we will say, 'hey, we have a government! This is what the people have decided!' But until then, some of the infighting is very boring. Some of it is valid and justified because there are elements that have to be gotten rid of. But the thing is there is just so much infighting even within the organisations themselves. There are people pulling that way and that way. To a certain extent, they try to imply that if you are not in an organisation, you are not committed to anything. The newspapers try to say that. I say, 'Listen, I've grown up with this situation. I always fought right up there, with everyone in the front.' And I think what I've been fortunate with, is to not be a member of an organisation. Because once you are a member of an organisation, you have to go, you are controlled by their rules, so that any kind of innovative situations that you might have with yourself, where you might be able to contribute, have to be controlled through the party bureaucracy. And things you might be able to do yourself can take years to be done because there has to be endless meetings about them.
NL: Two of the more popular tracks of your music have been the tracks 'Gold' and 'Stimela', and both tracks deal with the plight of the black miners in Apartheid South Africa. Does this focus come from personal experience or are you just making a general statement about the conditions?
HM: Well, I grew up in a coal mining town and my Grandmother ran a shebeen. Witbank, where I grew up, was like the melting point of all of Central-East Africa. We had people from Tanzania, from Kenya, Malawi, from Mozambique, from Angola, from Zambia, from Zimbabwe, from Namibia – they all came to work in the mines – and from Lesthewto and Swaziland, Botswana and the whole hinterland of South Africa. From the time I was four, I was aware of what was happening in South Africa because it was also during World War II – to see the conditions at the stations, in the mines, in the barracks. My father was a mine clerk for many years and worked in the immigration department for a long time. I noticed when we were in Zimbabwe, he came to visit me – he is a retired health inspector now – and he knew so many families in Zimbabwe who remembered him from when he worked in City Deep, as a clerk there. So I have a great mining background and I know how the mines work. And I have also met the people on the other side. When we were twelve years old [they] took some of us from St Petersburg Boarding School, the boys who'd been very good that year, to go to a picnic at Harry Oppenheimer's house, outside Krugersdorp. And he pointed out the Drakensburg Mountains from Krugersdorp, which is seventeen miles from there, and he had a luscious farm and everything. And he said, 'From here to there, it is all mine.' And I used to think about the hovel I had to go back to in the township, you know. And there were many other rich families that were involved in King Kong, invested in King Kong and other situations in the arts. And I knew where they lived. I mean, I've been in Helen Suzman's home, so I know the disparity between the lives we live in townships and what even the people who say they are on our side, who live off the system, in a privileged way in South Africa, I know how they live. And I mean the spectrum is so fucking wide. That is a thing that has always hurt me since I was a kid. I mean, it hurts all of us. But I knew, by the time I was nine I knew that I was going to New York, in my head, because that’s where the cats were, so to speak. And by the time I was fourteen, fifteen, I could tell you where Charlie Parker was playing that week and who was on bass. I have never really been concerned so much for myself; I'd like to see my people free. I live a nomadic life all over the world. I would like to be able to go to my embassy sometimes, not have to worry about passports, to be able to go home when I feel like. But I really pine for the freedom of my people because I know what kind of hardships they live under. And I think that based on that, and experiences in South Africa with the police, and the Boers are now difficult and brutal, it's impossible for it to not come out in our songs. And I don't think that we need any, based on your previous question, I don't think that any South African looks at their life in the township and how everybody lives, I don't think they need any guidance from any kind of liberation movements to be spiritually or artistically moved by the plight of their people.
NL: You've been in exile since Sharpeville in 1960, but you came back to Africa in 1985 to record two albums in Botswana. What made you go back and how much of an inspiration was this in those albums?
HM: Well in 1980, I finally, well I spent a lot of time in West Africa, but in 1980, a friend of mine came to the States. He was a big liquor distributor and he said, 'We miss you guys, why don't you come over somewhere so we can see you?' So in 1980, we played – myself and Miriam – we played in Lesotho, the stadium there. We played to about 75,000 people. And, I was just going to be there for the week, but I stayed three months because I hadn't been home for twenty years. All these people that came – my sisters came with their children – when I left they were children, you know, there were two new generations since I'd left. So there was a lot to catch up with. From there I went to Botswana and I met most of the members of my present band and jammed with them and did some benefits. And they said, 'Why don't you come back? I mean here you can sing in Setswana and Zulu, and even like be able to talk your language all the time. It's three hours from Johannesburg; all your folks and all your friends can come and see you. Groups come through here every weekend and we'd like to benefit from what you've been able to absorb overseas. What do you say?' It was difficult to refuse, I didn't know what I was going to start when I came to Botswana. But we ended up with a studio, we ended up with a hit record with European tours and the United States tours, and even a music school, which we started there. Living there was fantastic because I got to see my father almost every two weeks. He'd drive over and come and see us, my wife. Sometimes he'd bring the whole family. All my friends were there almost every weekend. I talked directly to Johannesburg. And then in 1985 the South African commanders came and started their raiding of the frontline states, or continued the raiding of the frontline states and killed all my friends, including the guy who had originally invited me to Botswana. And I just didn't feel like South African exiles in those areas, especially in Botswana, it's so sparsely populated and such a wide country, you never know when they are gonna come, and it felt like a potential target in a way, so we got rid of the studio. I've fortunately had a lot of work overseas, and had lots to do, but I really miss it.
NL: Is that why you went back to London to record the latest album, 'Tomorrow'?
HM: Well, I'd been in London doing other work and touring Europe, and of course London was my overseas headquarters for the last four or five years, so it was natural that I would work out of there.
NL: Your visit to Australia has been relatively short, have you had a chance to meet any of the Aboriginal people here?
HM: Yeah, the night before last we went to the Aboriginal School of Dance …
NL: That's right. The Aboriginal Islander Dance …
HM: Yeah, and we met a whole lot of people and some of them are coming to the show tonight.
NL: Is there any message you'd like to give the Aboriginal people here?
HM: No. I mean, I'm not a prophet or a messenger. I don't do that kind of thing. I know their history very very deeply. It's funny, just before I came here, I saw an legendary movie called The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and it really broke my heart. The history of the Aborigines is a heartbreaker, it's like the history of the American Indians. It's a heartbreaker because their smallness in numbers makes the future so bleak as far as being able to push. I look at us and we have such great numbers and we still have to fight so hard. But I think that one of the funniest things about the importance of the freedom of South Africans, I think, is that when South Africa gets free we will see the final international official abolition of racial oppression in the world. I'm sure that for us, when we are free, it will be an obsession to find out wherever the last little pockets of racial oppression exist. You find them in Europe, in America, in South America. But I think that if South Africa becomes free, we will be watchdogs for that situation, I think we will dedicate ourselves very much to it because we know what it is to be a victim of it. I think this must frighten a lot of Western governments, it's one of the reasons they don't want us to be free.
NL: Finally, as an Azanian patriot and long-time campaigner against the Apartheid regime, what do you see as the future for South Africa?
HM: Ohhh boy! I see a lot of confrontation, sadness, manipulation, division. I think we will finally win. The thing is, our children have made up their minds that they want the country, the whole cake. And if they can keep the tenth most powerful military power at bay with dustbin covers and stones for eleven years, then they are definitely going to win. I hope it's in my lifetime. I'd like to be able to see it. But I think that with the intransigence of the European population of South Africa, as it has been exhibited in the last few months, it's obvious that the confrontation is going to be there. And of course, with the voting of the American congress of 'no help' to the frontline states that harbour liberation movements, it is obvious that the West is prepared to fight on the side of the South African government. So we have a long fight ahead of us.