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South African jazz after apartheid: Looking for a new direction

South African jazz legend Hugh Masekela says the protest songs of apartheid need a sequel and suggests how.

By Scott Baldauf/ Staff writer / June 22, 2011

Hugh Masekela (l.) and Nigerian singer Femi Kuti performed during the opening ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup last June in South Africa.

Alexander Joe/Newscom/File

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Johannesburg, South Africa

It's one of those historical ironies that haunts Hugh Masekela, that the good times for South African music were also the bad times for political freedom.

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For the bulk of his musical career, playing jazz bars and township community halls, Mr. Masekela honed his skills as his country's preeminent jazz fluegelhornist under a hated system of apartheid that treated him as a second-class citizen because of the color of his skin.

Music was more than entertainment then: It was a coping mechanism for an oppressed people; it was a mode of free expression of political views; it was a chance for communities to gather together and draw strength from each other.

The streets of Egoli – the Zulu name for Johannesburg, because of the gold found there – were as lively as New Orleans' French Quarter, New York's East Village, or the Left Bank in Paris.

Many of South Africa's greatest artists – including Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Miriam Makeba – eventually moved out of South Africa in the early 1960s, exiled for their political views. It was in exile that the soundtrack of South Africa's struggle against apartheid was written, and captured the attention of the rest of the world.

Freedom – with the 1994 election of President Nelson Mandela – should have signaled a golden age for South African music, says Masekela, in a recent interview.

"When I came back here in 1990, this place was jumping, and Hillbrow [Johannesburg's inner city] was where it was at. And now I don't know if there is anywhere that groups can develop and hone their skills, because there's nowhere for them to do it," says Masekela. "I think that my advice would be for the arts community to become creative and not expect handouts, because they are not coming."

The day the music died

The euphoria of freedom has faded a bit after 17 years, but few South Africans would trade today's freedoms for the apartheid years. Even so, freedom did bring casualties. And 1994, in a way, was the day the music died. Jazz clubs suffered from the influx of rural migrants and foreign immigrants, crammed into tiny apartments by greedy landlords in the cheaper areas where jazz clubs tended to situate.

Jazz aficionados found that freedom gave them other options, including moving out of all-black neighborhoods into the middle-class white neighborhoods where they were now allowed to live.

In this fertile time of hope, there was a kind of desperation among those who remained hopeless, and crime began to take away the nightlife that South Africans had once taken for granted.

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