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 , / Staff writer

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    Hugh Masekela (l.) and Nigerian singer Femi Kuti performed during the opening ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup last June in South Africa.
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    Global music legend Hugh Masekela (in white) performed with top Afro-pop musicians in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 2008.
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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.

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.

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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.

Take a drive through the once-hopping commercial districts of Hillbrow, Yeoville, Orange Grove, and Berea, and you'll see the clubs and jazz bars replaced by corner stores and pawnshops, car-repair shops and funeral parlors, all of them safe behind iron security bars. Newtown in the city center is making a comeback, along with the Bassline and the Market Theater and the newly renovated jazz bar Kippies, but the days of barhopping from club to club, lured by the sound of bebop or mbaqanga, those days are gone.

Born in 1939 in the rural town of Witbank, outside Pretoria, Masekela saw South Africa's music scene at its peak, and in the late 1990s, in its time of decline. These days, an artist of Masekela's stature can tour the world, filling concert halls with fans eager to hear hits like "Bring Back Nelson Mandela" or "Sarafina" or the haunting "Coal Train," which tells the story of working conditions in South Africa's coal mines. But what about younger artists who are just getting started?

"It really is a pity, because there is so much great talent here that won't have a chance to develop unless they have a place where they can incubate their capabilities," says Masekela.

As a jazz artist, Masekela tries to reach out to new talent. He listens to the CDs of promising young musicians and singers while driving his car. Some artists go with him on tour, like the socially conscious singer Thandiswe Mazwai or the young a capella group Complete.

Musicians still make money, Mase­kela says, but club owners are generally happy just to hire a DJ with a turntable, rather than a band with instruments and other equipment. Club owners also seem to prefer artists who are noncontroversial, rather than those who write and perform protest songs, or as Masekela calls them, "songs of concern."

"The establishment anywhere in the world is not crazy about songs of concern, and in a country where politics reigns supreme, songs of concern are seen as no good," Masekela says. "It's easier to just have a guy saying 'hey, ho, hey, ho,' " he laughs, mimicking hip-hop artists.

So for musicians who play live music, Masekela suggests that artists simply create their own venues, book their own tours, and take music back to where it began, out in the townships.

"I think you'd have to come back old-style. You have to go back to how it was done in the home communities, playing in community halls," says Masekela.

Advice on rebuilding audiences

Musicians need to become their own promoters, going out to the townships, booking community halls, hiring local people to put up advertisements and bring in the crowd. "The money was less, but you worked all the time. And then you build an audience for your music."

It's hard to start things over, Masekela admits, but he isn't the kind of man to dwell on negatives.

"South Africa is the most beautiful country in the world, and the people, their expectation was high after freedom because they were promised so much," says Masekela. But people, and especially artists, can't afford to wait for politicians to bring back the arts scene, if only because "things they were promised are happening extremely slowly, if at all."

The key is to take music out to where people are. "In the end, music needs to be in the communities where people live," Masekela says. "Artists need to get creative."

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