Dressed in an orange linen designer shirt and brown trousers, a half coat and brown shoes to match, Hugh Masekela 77, is keenly listening to some of the jazz tunes churned out by the Korogocho’s Ghetto music group.
He hums along gingerly, occasionally pursing his lips. The ensemble is part of the Ghetto Classics project where youth for informal settlements are introduced to and encouraged to learn how to play classical instruments as a way of keeping them off the mean streets.
The musician who jetted into the country on Wednesday night is scheduled for a concert tonight at Uhuru Gardens, along Lang’ata Road.
Others who will perform include pianist Mwai and The Truth Band and Nairobi Horns Project.
The South African maestro will be the highlight of the Safaricom Jazz Festival and this is the sixth time, the first being in 1977, that he has toured the country. Still he says he feels an attachment to Kenya.
One thing he made clear at the interview was a dislike for weaves, even refusing to sit with women wearing them - at some point refused to take pictures with women in weaves and extensions.
The artist who describes Eric Wainaina as one of the best musicians locally says he intends to sing as long as he lives.
At 77, the iconic trumpeter still looks energetic, thanks to a healthy lifestyle and a regular exercise regime that includes walking, swimming, Tai Chi and Yoga.
Hugh Masekela began singing and playing the piano at the age of 14 when he took up the trumpet.
Belief in politics
“I strongly believe in celebrating the freedom fighters that died for the sake of the country as opposed to politicians,” he says, citing an example of Mau Mau fighters whom he says have been ignored despite their sacrifice to ensure that the country is where it is today.
Born in Witbank, Mmpumalanga South Africa, Masekela showed musical ability from a young age. Inspired by the movie, ‘Young Man with a Horn’, Masekela began to play the trumpet, encouraged by anti-apartheid activist Father Trevor Huddleston, who helped him acquire the instrument.
At Huddleston’s request, Masekela then received tuition in trumpet playing form Uncle Sauda, who played for the Johannesburg ‘Native’ Municipal Brass Brand.
Masekela soon mastered the trumpet, and began to play with other aspiring musicians in the Huddleston Jazz Band – South Africa’s first youth orchestra.
In his early days as a teenager on the South African music scene, he played with artists like Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim), Jonas Gwangwa and Kippie Moeketsi and also collaborated with famous icons like Miriam Makeba, Zimbabwean Dorothy Masuka, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Hedzoleh Soundz, Francis Fuster and Dudu Pukwana.
Masekela also formed an integral part of the orchestra for the South African Broadway-style musical King Kong, which was written by Todd Matshikiza.
Inspired by his life experiences, his music portrays the struggles and joys of living in South Africa, and voiced protest against slavery and discrimination.
Aided by Huddleston and other international friends to study in America, in 1961, Masekela went into exile, after which he pursued his studies at the London Guildhall School of Music, and later the Manhattan School of Music, where he befriended Harry Belafonte.
The composer of many hits among them the 1968 number one hit Grazing in the Grass, Masekela played primarily in jazz ensembles, like the Jazz Epistles, and successfully collaborated with international artists like The Byrds and Paul Simon.
In the 1980s, he set up a mobile studio in Botswana, where he further developed his musical style using African mbaqanga strains. His 1987 hit Bring Him Back Home became the anthem for Nelson Mandela’s world tour, following his release from prison in 1992.
The producer of musicals like Sarafina, which featured in the 2003 documentary film Amandla! his musical style continues to incorporate various African styles fused with jazz and funk, and has evolved into more of an adult contemporary style, which can be heard in his albums Techno-Bush, Tomorrow, Uptownship and Revival.
The Grammy award winner for Best Contemporary Pop Performance-Instrumental in 1968, who is honoured as one of South Africa’s most prominent and talented musicians, Masekela has toured the world to stage shows.