Tonight, a cavalier in the South African civil rights movement will indulge Memorial Hall with his own stylistic brand of jazz.
Hugh Masekela, 71, was instrumental in South Africa’s struggle to end apartheid, using his musical talent to propel him to the front lines of the movement.
“He’s a gorgeously talented musician, as well as this prominent international figure,” said Sean McKeithan, spokesman for Carolina Performing Arts. “He has music that all audiences can enjoy — he’s a virtuoso and a brilliant man.”
Masekela first started performing with The Huddleston Jazz Band under the anti-apartheid leader, Trevor Huddleston. Huddleston gave Masekela his first trumpet.
Since then, Masekela has attended the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, U.K., and later, the Manhattan School of Music in New York, N.Y.
However, it wasn’t until he left South Africa in 1961 that Masekela truly began to embody the spirit of his home country.
After coming to New York, Masekela realized he needed to personalize his style of jazz, said David Pier, assistant professor in the department of African and Afro-American studies.
“He couldn’t just go along this Art Blakey style that he was interested in at the time,” Pier said.
Masekela has continued to serve as a musical pioneer.
“His music is always very groove-based and experimental, eclectic in terms of the different grooves that he chooses,” Pier said. “He’s always referring to different groups in the African diaspora and Africa itself, but it’s never so experimental that it alienates.”
Masekela has melded his experiences with civil oppression and the ever-changing jazz movement to create a monumentally unique style, Pier said.
“Masakela’s sound provided a hook for all those who wanted to be involved in the movement,” Pier said. “It was accessible, using the right kind of sound, and he, as a person, projected the right kind of rebellious, strong image.”
Margaret Lee, associate professor of African and Afro-American studies, said Masekela’s influence has endured through years of political struggles.
“He is a very strong voice,” Lee said. “He wants to be there to support people who are poor, he wants to be there to support people with HIV/AIDS, and be there to see the day that it’s eradicated.
“Certainly you can hear a lot of protest in his music.”
Masekela’s song, “Bring Him Back Home,” served as the anthem in support of former South African President Nelson Mandela, calling for corrupt political leaders in that country to step down, Lee said.
And although Masekela is a popular musician around the world, having him perform on the Memorial Hall stage is a welcome surprise, Lee said.
“I was totally taken aback when I found that such a figure was invited here,” Lee said. “As many times as I’ve been to South Africa, I’ve never heard him, so it’s great to have him bring South Africa to Chapel Hill.”
Lee stressed that while Masekela was and continues to be an opinionated figure, the musician isn’t without a large breadth of easy-listening tunes, both in English and in his native tongue.
“There are a lot of songs in his own language and, though one may not understand it, you can still feel it,” Lee said. “You can definitely feel the power and the passion that he has.”
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