On Wednesday night South African musician Hugh Masekela had people dancing in the aisles of Kobacker Hall in a scene more like a late night at the Black Swamp Arts Festival than the university's Festival Series.
|South African music legend Hugh Masekela playing for students at BGSU's Donnell Theater. (Photos: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
Masekela lives for this. He believes his job as a performer is to make people happy. He achieves that by playing pungent melodies on flugelhorn, by singing words and nonsense syllables in a pleasingly gruff and percussive voice, by rapping away at a cowbell eliciting a spectrum of sounds from the simple instrument, and by dancing with verve and energy impressive for anyone, never mind someone just a few hours away from turning 74.
Masekela had the audience, grey hairs and youngsters, echoing twisting African phrases that ended with high pitched whoops.
And then the hall was silent as Masekela spoke of those displaced by conflicts around the world - women, children, the disabled, the elderly - war's eternal victims.
The master entertainer is also a humanitarian.
The son of a South African farmer who lived under a racist regime, he has traveled around the world many times over on the wings of music.
Masekela was on campus as part of Jazz Week activities. The day after the concert, he answered questions from students gathered in Donnell Theatre.
Before talking, he played. He and pianist Randal Skippers, a member of the crack band that performed the night before, played first a South African folk song, and then moved across the miles and years to play Jerome Kern's ballad "All the Things You Are."
Though the songs come from different worlds, Masekela was at home with both. He can play with a symphony orchestra or with musicians "in the bush," and he finds greatness in them all. "Everyone who participates well is an inspiration," he said.
His first lesson for students: "Live in the world."
"One of the great things about being alive is you live your life in the world that's full of all kind of cultures ... If you don't go to them, you'll always remain in the street that you grew up in, and it's a very narrow little canyon."
He didn't choose to be a musician, he said. "I was invaded by music when I was an infant, and was glad not to have to exorcise it. It was like a welcomed devil. If it wasn't for music I wouldn't be sitting with you here."
As a toddler he loved the gramophone and asked his elders to play music and he would sing along, so his parents decided to give him piano lessons when he was 5. Years later at boarding school, where he was, he said, getting into trouble, he took up the trumpet after seeing the movie "Young Man with a Horn" based on the life of jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke.
Other students wanted horns as well. So their teacher Trevor Huddleston secured some. When the Anglican cleric was expelled from the country for opposing apartheid he ended up in America where he met Louis Armstrong and told him about his South African charges.
|South African music legend Hugh Masekela speaking to students at BGSU's Donnell Theater.
Armstrong sent the band a trumpet, and that made the small group of young jazz musicians, The Epistles, which also included pianist Dollar Brand, now known as Abdullah Ibrahim, famous in a land where little note was taken of the native population.
Even the racist rural newspaper took note with a story headlined: "Darkie Boys Get Trumpet from Idol."
With their school closed, "we worked all the time, we didn't make much money." Masekela yearned for more formal training. Masekela eventually left South Africa first to England to study at Guild Hall School of Music and then to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music, under the sponsorship of Harry Belafonte.
Masekela recalled an early gig in America. He was booked into the Aqua Lounge in Philadelphia, and the first day, a Tuesday, four people came to the performance, but the help enjoyed the band.
Masekela asked the club owner if they should cancel the rest of the week. The club owner urged patience. "It's only Tuesday." By Saturday, the club was packed and people lined up outside the door waiting to get in.
Another lesson: "If you don't work hard for four people, you won't be able to reach 200 even if they're there. You really have to put yourself out every time you're in front of an audience. You have to give them your best."
As Masekela grew successful, he remembered his people back home. "That's when they say you're into politics."
He "grew up with marches, demonstrations, massacres" and it would be "very selfish" to forget that legacy. "If you just think about yourself and think you got there on your own, you're in big trouble."
Masekela through his music and words became a prominent voice urging the end to apartheid. On Wednesday he closed his show singing his anthem "Bring Him Back Home" for Nelson Mandela.
"It's incumbent on everyone to object to injustice," he said.
He is "discouraged" that so many young people "looking at the screen wondering how they look, what's hip. ... Human outrage has to come back again." Masekela warned: "If we're not vigilant about our freedom, it will be taken away from us."
Not that he was trying to turn the students into "radicals."
"It's just something worth thinking about," he said. If they do turn in to radicals," he asked. "Don't tell your parent it was me."
Masekela said after apartheid was overturned that he was naive about politics, and he like so many others from the past were left thinking. "I might have voted in the same kind of people who oppressed us."
"I always try to remember I come from the human race, a very complex species that historically speaking has never behaved well toward itself."
The power of music and arts are limited: "If music could have had an effect on the consciences of the national or international establishments, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, would have changed the world long ago."
Staying fit for music
During the intermission at Wednesday's Hugh Masekela concert, the buzz wasn't just about the vibrant performance, but about the 73-year-old star's ability to move so well.
He was ever in motion, executing fluid dance steps as he sang and his band grooved.
Masekela who turned 74 Thursday told students he doesn't feel old. "It's only when I look in the mirror that I see my Dad."
The elder South African urged them to keep fit: "The body was meant to move, it was never meant to ride."
He said he walks daily and regularly swims. The key, though, has been his practice of T'ai Chi, the foundation of all martial arts.
The exercises are especially good for the legs and joints. It gives him "the suppleness and peace of mind" he needs to play music.
"I work very hard so I can stay fit to do what I want to do," he said. "When you perform you're just happy to see people being happy."