Friday, September 30, 2005

**Genetic Frontier of the Motherland



This is the third of my Eye on Africa series. I enjoyed researching and writing this piece, although I didn't really get as detailed as I wanted to or perhaps should have regarding the actual genetic controversies. I'm obviously not a molecular geneticist, but I wonder about the issue of databases and genetic markers, particularly if Oprah Winfrey DNA was supposedly traced to the Zulu tribe. According to African Ancestry's web site, they don't have markers for the Ndebeles and the Swazis, who are adjacent ethnic groups and might have similar markers. (They claim to have a marker for Xhosas, another adjacent ethnic group, but that is raises even more questions because the Xhosas are a actually a group of tribes--the Amampondo, Mfengu and Thembu--that speak the Xhosa language. So these become confusing issues with regard to what actually goes into the database.) In Oprah's defense, I read one blog post from someone who claimed to be a member of the Zulu royal family, and he said that Shaka sent a group of Zulu's to the United States for technical education, but they never returned. On the other hand, a lot of South Africans are trying to get away from the tribalism that has been a destructive influence on their history. So why should an American media celebrity claim that she "is Zulu"?

For African Americans, genetic technology in the new millennium is proving to be an unexpected source of knowledge and self-discovery. Incredibly, the tools of modern research are forming an unlikely connection to lost ancestors, broken families and forgotten languages and traditions dispersed by the legacy of slavery. At a time of heightened interest in Africa—when more African Americans are traveling to Motherland than ever before—the link between the Diaspora and Africa is being augmented by the study of DNA.

Thoughts of DNA testing in the Black community might invoke images of forlorn mothers on the Maury Povich Show crying in pain or shrieking vindication as a parade of their hapless boyfriends are brought on camera for the final ‘moment of truth’. Far beyond criminal investigations, paternity suits and court cases, DNA analysis is beginning to have entirely new associations and implications for African Americans. The idea of tracing the DNA of African Diaspora descendents to their roots in Africa is being pioneered by African Ancestry, a company founded in February, 2003 by molecular biologist Dr. Rich Kittles and entrepreneur Gina Paige. Dr. Kittles, began developing his database nearly 10 years ago, as an extension of his academic research. Currently, the company claims it has 20,000 samples in its database, representing about 200 ethnic groups throughout Africa.

The concept for African Ancestry started after Kittles traced his own DNA, and soon became inundated by requests from friends and acquaintances that also wanted to know their own genetic history. Overwhelmed by the work, Kittles eventually partnered with Paige, creating a business that has doubled every year since its launch and has served about 3,000 people. African Ancestry has also attracted media personalities and celebrity clients such as Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, actor Isaiah Washington, “Roots” star LeVar Burton, former UN ambassador Andrew Young and California Congresswoman Diane Watson.

“The market found us. It wasn’t something that we were trying to push on the community,” says Paige, a former Fortune 200 company executive. “People were creating the demand and forcing the creation of the company.”

Customers pay $349 for either a MatriClan test for maternal lineage or a PatriClan for paternal lineage. Each kit contains two sterile cotton swabs that are rubbed on the inside of both cheeks, then placed in bar-coded envelopes that are express couriered to African Ancestry for processing. The results are sent back to the customer in 4-6 weeks, and the original samples are then destroyed to protect confidentiality.

Paige is upbeat not only about the company’s prospects, but also about the impact African Ancestry is having on the African American community.

“People have used this in different ways, on local, national, and global levels. Personally, people share information with their family, and they may name a cousin based on the language of their ancestry,” Paige says, enthusiastically. “People have formed study groups, and native associations. There are people who have lobbied their congressmen, and there are people who have invested in their ancestral communities.”

But the work has not been without its controversies. Oprah Winfrey caused a stir during a recent trip to South Africa when she announced that her DNA test results revealed her ancestors were Zulu. Many found this hard to believe, given that Zulus were historically far removed from the West African slave trade. Moreover, the Zulu Empire was an amalgamation of many different ethnic groups conquered by the great warrior Shaka Zulu, which at its height spread from the South African coast through present-day Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Even Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a leading chief of the Zulu nation remarked, “She is sadly mistaken.”

Others have questioned how reliable DNA data can be in determining ancestry for specific ethnic groups, and whether enough genetic markers have been collected and categorized to derive detailed assessments. But Paige is careful in describing her company’s services and cautions potential customers against having wrong expectations.

“Certainly, we don’t have every ethnic group in our database—we have 200 ethnic groups in our database. But we never market that we will find an ethnic group. We market that we can find the country, but if we can find an ethnic group, that ‘s even better,” Paige explains. “In over 85 percent of the cases we find the ethnic groups, but I don’t want people to be misled. We can’t guarantee that we will find the ethnic groups. People who are looking for ethnic groups need to think long and hard about why they are taking the test.”

Notwithstanding the sarcasm and cynicism sparked by Winfrey’s comments in blogs and on message boards, stories abound of individuals who have found personal meaning in their test results. One woman felt “a sense of completion” after her test results confirmed a story her grandfather told her that one of their ancestors was a slave originally from Timbuktu. Another woman, who traced both her mother’s and father’s ancestors to Sierra Leone, traveled to a rural village and pledged to raise funds for a new school complex and a small medical clinic. A Chicago man who learned he descended from the Kru tribe of Liberia became an activist on behalf of his people, many of whom are refugees displaced by Liberia’s civil war.

Civil rights leader and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, who has traveled and worked in many parts of Africa, traced his ancestry to Sierra Leone and Sudan, countries he had never been active in before. Young feels that DNA analysis is a good resource for African Americans to identify and become involved with specific countries and cultures in Africa.

"What we need now is for people to get deeply involved in one particular country or region or culture, and this certainly is one way that anybody can decide ‘this is where I want to work,’” says, Young, noting that he plans to be more “intrusive and involved” in Sierra Leone and Sudan.

In “Motherland: A Genetic Journey,” filmmakers T. Jackson and A. Baron profile two Black British women and one man who search for their African roots using DNA analysis. One woman is mixed-race, and her test reveals that one of her ancestors was a slave owner, and she visits what used be his sugar plantation in Jamaica. The other woman traces her ancestry to the Bubi tribe of Equatorial Guinea, and has a very emotional reunion on Bioko Island where the people accept her as a sister. The man’s search leads him to an equally emotional encounter with the Kanari tribe in southern Niger.

The award-winning documentary, which aired on BBC and American cable networks, so moved Coloradan Mika Stump that she decided she had to have her own African Ancestry DNA test. Stump—who was recently tested and is waiting for the results—was orphaned when she was 6 after her mother left her in New York City’s Penn Station and never returned. Along with the confusion of her abandonment, Stump has earlier childhood memories of “palm trees and beaches,” suggesting that she and her mother may have come to New York from the Caribbean or a tropical or sub-tropical coastal area. She hopes the test results will help her put together some of the missing pieces of her life.

“It’s everything to me. When people ask me, ‘who are you, where are you from,’ I look at them and I can’t answer,” Stump explains. “It will be amazing if they can pinpoint something and say, this is where I am from. That’s big for me.”

The Basalt high country resident believes her DNA analysis will provide her with a reference point where she can begin her research. When she was abandoned, Stump didn’t know her name or her age or her mother’s name, and had to rely on what she was told by medical doctors. Like many others who are exploring the ramifications of DNA testing, Stump is finding a new kind of hope in her quest for a sense of identity and connection with her African ancestors.


For more information on DNA analysis see http://www.africanancestry.com/ and www.uml.edu/dept/biology/rootsproject/africanamericandna.htm

**Parallel Worlds: South African Music in America

Duke Ellington and Sathima Bea Benjamin



This is another article I wrote in my Eye on Africa series. As I develop my blog, I intend to write a lot more about artists, musicians, songwriters, producers, etc., who are a part of the phenomenal South African music scene. South African jazz--and the many genres that influence it, like marabi, kwela, isicathamiya and mbaqanga--is amazing, especially when you see live performances and feel the energy the artists bring to the audience. The South African music tradition is as profound and varied and extraordinary as African American music--it just hasn't had the same international exposure. When I was in South Africa I hung out with a lot of musicians, producers, promoters, etc., who took me on a seemingly endless journey of discovery about their musical heritage. Inevitably, as time progresses, more and more people will learn about South African artists and their music. If you want to take a quick planetary adventure, you can explore great South African music on a great Jo-burg radio station--check out Kaya FM .



South African music has had a lasting influence and presence in American popular culture. Whether it’s the rich harmonies and fabulous rhythms of The Lion King, or pleasant, soothing melodies of “Mbube” (The Lion Sleeps Tonight), or the catchy grooves of Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass,” quite often Americans hear chart-topping hits without realizing that they are South African songs. South Africa is the only country outside of the United States with its own identifiable jazz tradition, and South African music has long had a strong relationship with African-American music, yet few Americans are aware of these bonds and connections. To the American psyche, South African music represents something that is often appealing and surprisingly familiar, yet novel and unknown.



The fascinating complexities of American and South African music are most profoundly and sadly entwined in “Mbube,” one of the most recognizable tunes in modern music. “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…” is a lyric that almost everybody knows. “Mbube,” was written by Solomon Linda, a Zulu migrant worker who recorded the song at Gallo Studios in Johannesburg in 1939. Linda was paid 10 shillings (about $3.50) and signed away the rights to the song, as was the standard practice of exploitation of Black artists at the time.

In 1948, Pete Seeger heard “Mbube” on an old ‘78 and mistakenly translated the chorus as “Wimoweh” in a 1950 recording that first popularized the song in America. George Weiss and The Tokens added new English lyrics and turned the song into a smash international hit in 1962, about the same time that Linda died penniless in Soweto. Since then, artists ranging from Glenn Campbell and Chet Atkins to Brian Eno, REM and Nsynch have recorded the song, and, most recently, Disney featured “Mbube” in its box office powerhouse, The Lion King. Rolling Stone magazine estimates that the song has generated at least $15 million in composer royalties, while Linda’s grandchildren remain impoverished in Soweto and are suing Disney and various publishing companies for a portion of the profits.


But beyond the sad story of “Mbube,” there are great sparks of creativity in the parallel history of South African and American music. The seeds were sown when migrants from rural South Africa brought their indigenous rhythms and musical traditions to the big cities, where they blended new hybrid styles heavily influenced by American jazz and big band sounds. “Marabi,” “Mbaqanga,” “Kwela” and “Isicathamiya” were some of the new musical trends that began to evolve in the dynamic mix of South African urban cultures. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, the Mills Brothers, Bessie Smith, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and other African-American musicians unknowingly inspired generations of South African artists in the new modern African language of jazz.


In the ‘60s, the plethora of South African music began to slowly trickle out as South African artists went into exile and traveled and performed throughout Africa, Europe and the United States. In the esoteric circles of the jazz and the music industry, seminal artists like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Sathima Bea Benjamin, Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu generated excitement and new waves of creativity. Miriam Makeba—“The Empress of African Song”—was the first South African to have a major American hit and win a Grammy award, with 1965’s “Pata Pata,” produced by Harry Belafonte. Makeba used her connections to pave the way for many other South African artists, and became an outspoken leader in the struggle against apartheid and racial discrimination in America. Makeba was instrumental in bringing Hugh Masekela to the United States, and introduced him to Harry Belafonte and Dizzie Gillespie, who served as Masekela’s entree to many of the fantastic talents of the Black music scene in the early 60s, including John Coltrane, Theolonius Monk, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Sammy Davis, Jr., and James Brown.

Masekela went on to create dynamic collaborations and performances with artists from diverse genres, blazing a trail between bebop, Motown, rock, soul and his own South African jazz tradition, culminating in his 1968 mega-hit, “Grazing in the Grass.” Because of its familiar trumpet hook, many people often mistakenly think Quincy Jones played “Grazing in the Grass,” and miss the subtle but distinct South African jazz flavor. After returning to Africa for few years, Masekela organized the music festival for Muhammed Ali and George Foreman’s “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire. The “Black Woodstock” was the first major music festival in Africa and featured an incredible array of African American, Caribbean and African artists, including James Brown, Bill Withers, B.B. King, Etta James, the Pointer Sisters, Celia Cruz, Cheo Feliciano, Willie Colon, Miriam Makeba, Manu Dibango, Franko, Papa Wemba, and Fela Kuti. The footage for "When We Were Kings," the documentary film for the fight and the festival, was originally commissioned by Masekela's production company, but it took more than twenty years to complete the film because of various legal and personal battles over a fantastic event that was chaotic and utlimately unprofitable.


Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, more and more South African musicians made their way out of the country and either formed their own bands or played with high profile artists like Makeba, Masekela, Ibrahim, and Semenya. Percussionists, horn players, singers and guitarists in the exile community gradually fed the flame of interest in South African music among artists and music lovers all around the world. These unknown and behind the scenes artists assimilated their traditions and skills in festivals, groups and scenes, using their talent to create opportunities in the bohemian lifestyle of nightclubs, concert gigs and touring circuits.

In 1986--seemingly out of nowhere--Paul Simon set off a new explosion of South African music after he slipped into South Africa to collaborate with artists and producers on his multi-platinum, Grammy award-winning Graceland album. The phenomenal success of Graceland created a more conscious awareness of the nascent dimensions of South African music in the landscape of the American music scene. A year after the release of Graceland, guitarist and singer Jonathan Butler began to attract a large following in both Great Britain and the United States with his Grammy-nominated album self-titled album. Butler’s jazz guitar and R&B vocals gave many people the impression he was an African American artist in the mold of George Benson, but for those familiar with South African jazz, the underlying influences in his guitar style were unmistakable. By the end of the decade Mbongeni Ngema took Broadway by storm with the box office smash Sarafina, and its hit song “Bring Back Nelson Mandela,” which he wrote with Hugh Masekela. Sarafina also set the stage for success of The Lion King in the mid-90s as South African music made an indelible mark on mainstream popular culture.


Even with The Lion King, Sarafina, Graceland and all the South African hits extending back to the 60s, we have barely scratched the surface of South African music, which is really a universe all its own. Many great artists and a world of incredible music waiting to be discovered by curious “Westerners.” For those fortunate enough to travel to South Africa, there’s nothing like the ambience of live South African jazz in the hot nightclubs of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Johannesburg has a fabulous “Arts Alive” festival every September, which features many great South African artists along with a few African superstars. The Cape Town International Jazz Festival also showcases some of South Africa’s best musicians, along with an international lineup of top jazz artists. But you can explore South African music a lot easier through the Internet, and find listening samples at the stroke of a keyboard. There is no definitive South African music web site, so you’ll have to take some time to research different artists but it’s well worth the effort. Some artists have elaborate Flash web sites with excellent audio samples, while others have poorly organized web pages with very little information. Quite often you can find artists and samples of their albums on Amazon.com. You may also want to start your search by listening online to Kaya FM (www.kayafm.co.za ), a Johannesburg radio station that plays an excellent variety of South African music. You can also check out Sheer Sound (http://www.sheer.co.za/index.html ) and M.E.L.T. 2000 (www.melt2000.com ), two record labels that are cultivating some of South Africa’s best up and coming talent.


Some of my favorite artists are Zim Ngqawana, Paul Hanmer, Jimmy Dludlu, Bayete, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Vusi Khumalo, Moses Molelekwa, Busi Mhlongo, Tsepho Thola, Thandiswa Mazwai, Jeff Maluleke, and Tu Nokwe, not to mention Hugh Masekela and Jonathan Butler. But don’t limit yourself to these choices—there’s plenty to discover on the South African side of the global village.


**Hugh Masekela on Music and Politics



The first column of my Eye on Africa series is this interview I did with Hugh Masekela just before he played a Fourth of July concert at Five Points here in Denver. He was very open and easy going, which I found rather surprising for an artist of his stature. A lot of times famous musicians can be full of themselves, emotional, moody, etc. After we sat down I put my cell phone on my lap and Hugh immediately warned me about the cancer radiation radiation threat to my family jewels! Funny guy ... Hugh's autobiography, Still Grazing, is absolutely fabulous--once you pick it up, I guarantee you won't be able to put it down. The man blazed a trail from bebop to rock, soul, and all kinds of African genres, and he opened a lot of people's eyes to South African music. He organized the music festival for the "Rumble in the Jungle" Ali vs. Foreman fight in Zaire, the first international Black music festival in Africa. Now that's history...


Master musician, jazz artist, activist, storyteller and spokesman, Hugh Masekela’s spirit has burned bright through four decades of tumultuous world change. The young boy who mastered his trumpet on the dusty streets of South Africa’s township ghettos was destined to use his instrument as the sound of freedom, yearning and triumph, the sound of dissonant harmonies and fantastic grooves that naturally brought everyone to their feet. Going into exile in the 60s, moving from Britain to the United States and throughout many nations in Africa, Hugh always used his stage as a platform to denounce apartheid while simultaneously collaborating with and learning from some of the world’s greatest artists, including Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, Miriam Makeba, Herbie Hancock, Dave Gruisin, Chick Corea, Donald Byrd, Ron Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and many others. As a witness to the American civil right movement, the winds of independence in Africa, and finally the fall of apartheid, Hugh’s music and storytelling chronicles the modern awakening of Africa and her people. Whether it’s the irrepressible joy of his 1968 mega hit “Grazing in the Grass,” or the gutsy power and pain of “Stimela,” or the mystical transcendence of “Marketplace,” Hugh helped bring African music—and South African music in particular—to the mainstream of global pop culture.

On Independence Day—that most American of holidays—Hugh brought his magic to the streets of Five Points for the annual “Jazzy Fourth” event. Well into his sixties, Hugh’s trumpet and his raspy, melodic, chanting voice still rocks the stage with a feeling of timelessness and eternal youth. With the crowd there was no doubt. Black, White, Hispanic, young and old, jazz lovers, hip hop kids and summer revelers were all carried away by the euphoria of Hugh's impeccable performance. In the midst of the new challenges of rebuilding South Africa and pursuing a multitude of music, film and writing projects, Hugh has mellowed and wizened, seeking new ways to express his artistic vision and philosophy. Before the performance I had the chance to sit down with him at the Gardenia Hotel, where he pondered his journey through the modern history and the music industry. In his humble, unassuming way, Hugh seems like an elder cultural statesman of Africa, a modern day griot overflowing with stories, thoughts and ideas that are much more than what one might expect from most musicians. Relaxed, yet full of energy, Hugh seems ready to share the depth of his spirit as if it was as natural as channeling the air through his trumpet.



JA: How has your music changed since you returned to South Africa from in the early 1990s?

HM: It hasn’t change much—South Africa hasn’t changed that much. Our political situation has changed, but the damage that was done by apartheid hasn’t changed very much. If it took 50 years to build apartheid, I think it will take 50 years to get rid of the damage done (by apartheid). It will probably take two generations.

Our biggest dilemma in SA is that we are a liberated people who are poor. The people who are really free people are our oppressors. We made a deal that was very much to their favor. They were pariahs internationally, they couldn’t do business anywhere and everywhere they went they were afraid to say they were South Africans. Now everywhere they go they get applauded for being South Africans and they have all the new opportunities. If you look at all the new international South African businesses, they are basically White businesses, or they are businesses that are owned by people who have been co-opted by the old South African economic establishment—just like many of civil rights leaders in the States. What happens in most liberation struggles is that people don’t remain militant—they don’t remain vigilant and guard the freedoms that they’ve won. And instead they get manipulated into being co-opted into the establishment—especially by the old financial establishment—and it’s a danger we’re facing right now. In South Africa right now close to 50 percent of the population is impoverished, and those are the people worked the hardest and suffered the most under apartheid. I am now into writing a second novel—I wrote my biography, “Still Grazing”—but in my novels these issues come up a lot. I’m also going into film, to create real life characters, portraits and profiles of what’s really happening right now in South Africa. We’re not being harassed by the police—if you have the means and the education, you can live very well—but it is the underclass that are suffering. And all the non-governmental solidarity organizations that were supporting us during apartheid have said “Hey, you’re free now. We’re going to help other people.” So from a solidarity perspective we don’t have any friends but the documents that freed us. That’s the reality in my head of the new South Africa.

JA: What do you think is the answer?

HM: A wonderful thing about our current president is that he realizes that South Africa’s freedom is meaningless, unless the rest of the international African community is free—unless all of us, the so-called Diaspora can be free. We all won political freedom, but we need to win economic freedom. But that is not going to come through protests and soapboxes--it is a thing that is going to come through synergy. I think the answer is cultural synergy. To achieve that cultural synergy we have to come out of that denial against us all being Africans that we are manipulated into by colonialism and oppression. We’re the last consumer community, all over the world. We are discouraged from seeing each other as one unit. Once we can do that—the answer to that is our cultural background, our historical glory—when you look at people of African origin from all over the world, you think that our existence started with slavery, or colonialism. But we were there long before. And that is the veil that is put in front of us. I think if we can remove that veil and see who we really are, and where we come from, and that we really did civilize the world, maybe we will wake up and say, “Hey, let us get together and produce…”

At home (in South Africa) I’m involved in recording, television and film companies to build an entertainment infrastructure that is home-grown and home-owned, African-owned, that will replace or transform the present European ownership with our own vision and our own design. And then maybe we can source from our traditional customs and the glory of our heritage—that is the future thing we can sell to the world. I think that’s what makes the Indians who they are, the Chinese who they are, the Japanese who they are, even the Americans who have a hybrid culture—there is no culture that has been sold better than theirs.

JA: In SA there’s a lot of talk about the idea of an “African Renaissance,” but in the United States, we don’t hear any talk of an African Renaissance. Can you elaborate on that?

HM: Well, talk is not sustainable, but action is. It’s another thing that Thabo Mbeki, our president put out there, hoping people would pick up the torch and run with it. But renaissance cannot come about through thought--it has to be acted on. The only way we can act on it is to come out of denial about who we are as Africans. Because as long as we deny who we really are, what our historical heritage is, there can’t be a renaissance, because renaissance is going back to your roots. Celebrating and glorifying your origins—I think that’s what the Indians and the Europeans and the Arabs and the Jews everybody else is doing. We’re the only people who are not doing it. If you look at other people in the world, they have seasons, and sometimes they have whole months that they celebrate something about who they are. The Christians get us from November to January. But we African people, we don’t have one binding celebration that we can say that we can say “this is our day” internationally.

JA: Do you see Kwaanza as fulfilling that role?

HM: It’s one day, and it’s sort of an alternative to Christmas. I don’t think we should be involved in alternatives to other cultural celebrations. I think we should come up with our own. And we have our own—if we look back at history—if we look back at the empires we had, like the Songai Republic, the Monomotapa Republic and so on. We invented the wheel, we invented math, we invented geometry—we have so many resources to celebrate. But we have to accept that we are those people, and we have to cancel the history of our conquerors, and say this is really who we are. We can go to the schools of our conquerors, but just like the Jews have like Friday and Saturday, the Muslims have every Friday they get together and the Christians have Sunday and then the Buddhists have their days, we must have our own days. Those things are historical, and we’re going to have to research.

JA: Can you tell us a little about your new album Revival, and how it relates to some of these issues?

HM: On my new album and I have song called “Woman of the Sun” I talk about a woman who is proud to be herself, proud of her African beauty. On track number 9 (“Ibala Lam”) talks about how we should be proud of the dark skin we’re in.
Track number 10 (“Sleep”) I talk about sleep… How do we sleep at night, when people are exploding in the minefields in Angola and other places because of surrogate wars? How do we sleep in Rwanda with the smell of all those bodies all around us? How do we sleep Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, in Haiti, when there are people who are working against us but are part of us, people who are surrogates for foreign industrial interests? All the wars in Africa have nothing to do with personalities or African issues. It’s all about the fact that there are resources there. The international industrial interests are manipulating our leaderships---and if those leaderships are not satisfactory they are ousted, and they put in a leadership that will protect the exploitation of the raw materials of that area.

JA: I’m particularly fascinated by “Ibala Lam.”

HM: That song is an adaptation. I actually first heard it in 1979 from a young man named Lebo M (who eventually went on to write and produce the multi-platinum soundtrack for Disney’s “The Lion King”) who was only 14 years old, and he had just arrived out of exile from Lesotho. He was brought by Tim Tahane who was at the World Bank, and he also brought another young guy named Vernon Molefe, the younger brother of Phil Molephe from SABC Africa. Tim called me and said, “Listen here, I’ve got two boys I brought from Lesotho. I want to send them to school, but they tell me they are musicians, so I want you to listen to them and tell me if it’s worth my while to hassle for them to get into music school.” This little guy started singing this some “Ibala Lam” and it brought tears to my eyes. I never forgot it from that day. It says, “this color of mine that is so Black, I’m proud if it—it’s my shining armor.”

Most of my recent hits in South Africa are have been old songs, songs like “Tainia” is an old Xhosa wedding song, it’s more than two centuries old, and “Mamuri:” an old Tswana song.

JA: Why have your South African hits been old songs?

HM: Because I’ve been on a revival quest. I’m trying to show that our past, is our wealth. That which was removed and denigrated and vilified by our conquerors as being barbaric and backward—that is our finest self. Whenever I bring that forward it becomes a hit, because people feel it right away. It’s like “Yea, this is about me.” The young people think that it’s new. But it’s in their genes—they feel it in their soul.

There’s problem with that here in the States with Black people—the removal of the melody. Today there’s hardly any song you can sing along with. What is sponsored is mostly anti-education, it’s anti-respect, it’s about showing booty, it’s just beats and grooves and rhythm but there’s no songs. What we don’t realize is the magnificence of international urban recreation, came from African Americans. The whole world tries to walk like you, talk like you, to dance like you, to sing like you, to dress like you, but they won’t tell you that. But you can see it happening all over. That’s what brought me to the States—I felt that. And all that, I watch killed. I watch jazz killed—the closing of the clubs (that thrived) when I first came here in the 60s—Birdland and the Blue Note all closed down, and that whole jazz movement closed down, because people who came out of Bebop could think and they had opinions and they were not afraid of White people. Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie Monk and Mingus, they were not liked by the White establishment, because they came up with something that was magnificent and new and they also thought. Duke Ellington was invincible; he and Billy Strayhorn were major intellectuals. Had they been White people they would have been placed far above George Gershwin and Cole Porter. They were prolific.

But what spoils things now is the non-melodic. Even the dances—there’s no dance where you can say “that’s the funky chicken”, or “that’s the dog,” or “that’s the slide” or “that’s the twist.” When I came here, those were tangible dances. People say I’m socially paranoid, but I know there is a deliberate and ongoing campaign to make sure that the excellence of international African magnificence is curtailed. That’s why Bob Marley was done in, that’s why Miriam Makeba was blackballed out of here, that’s why Belafonte sort of disappeared, that’s what happened to Sly and Jimi Hendrix. James Brown was a major survivor. People think that that campaign is over, but that campaign doesn’t go away.



JA: How do you see this in relation to South African jazz and the tradition you came out of?

HM: The thing that is bringing (music) home, is that the young (South African) men and women are technologically very advanced. They are building their own studies and production companies, and that’s what we’re involved in with Chissa (Hugh’s record label). I think that slowly we are getting into an era where we’ll do our manufacturing, our own distribution and our own marketing and sales. And hopefully soon we’ll have our own radio stations and television stations and film companies and we’ll come up with a new thing. With the help of security companies we’ll be able to come up with a whole new entertainment infrastructure. Everything has to be continental. The continent has to be safe for Africans to have a good time. Africans need to have a good time—Africans haven’t had a good time for centuries, and we have to build that. But I don’t think it’s in the mind of most African governments to do that.

South African jazz is a media myth in growth. Basically there is no African entertainment industry—if it exists its very miniscule, it’s nowhere near the Japanese or the Chinese or the Europeans or the Indians, and it has to go there, before we can say South African or African music is happening. Of course there’s few artists, but right now it’s not happening. It has to be built.

JA: When I was in South Africa, I heard a lot of complaints that younger South Africans were losing interest in their culture because of their interest in rap and African American music and television. Do you see any evidence of that?

HM: If anything the youth in South Africa are the only ones who are looking up. People like Don Laka, people like Mzwai Bala, who produced my last album and was the leader of TKZ, people like Oscar Mhlangwa and Bruce from Brothers of Peace who produced Bongo Maffin, Malaika and Mafikizolo, that was all native languages. These are all young people, but they are really aggressive about their origins, their past and their heritage. They are the people who are forging an African renaissance, and those are the people I’ve been working with. I find that their curiosity for the past is insatiable. I think they are the hope. I think the adults have lost it. I think that in the whole international African world, adults are the ones to blame, because they left their children to the television, and they bought their own television and closed themselves in their own rooms to watch their own programs and their agendas are to be as Western as possible. And they’re not teaching their children. I know my grandchildren are going to be fine, because my children are fine. But I think that the international African adult has abandoned their responsibility to keep their family values going and to point their children in the right direction.

JA: Was there ever a time when you thought you would never see the defeat of apartheid in your lifetime?

HM: I never thought that I would go back home—I never thought that South Africa would be free in my lifetime. But I knew it was going to be free one day. I not only thought I was going to die in exile, I was sure of it. Especially after I went to live in Botswana between 1981 and 1985. I said to myself, “This is the closest I’m going to be to home.” I was able to organize a music school, my record company built a studio, and Gabarone started to become a cultural hub of Southern Africa, and the death squads came and so I went into second exile. I’ll never forget June 17, 1985, when I left, I thought, “Here I am going back into second exile.” But I didn’t feel badly for myself, because I knew that I would survive. I felt bad for the people of South Africa, and Africa, because I knew that to a great extent Africa would never be free until South Africa was free. But now that South Africa is free, that’s only step one. The next step is to free Africa from surrogate wars that are waged on behalf of international industrial and economic interests. And then we have to get rid of the frontiers--the borders—because we didn’t put them there. That won’t happen in our lifetime, but it’s very important to be part of that initiative.

JA: Your first major hit in the US, “Grazing in the Grass” has become something of an American classic, although a lot of people probably know the tune, they may not know the artist. Almost 40 years have passed now since that powerful time when you wrote “Grazing in the Grass.” Can you tell us something about how you feel when you play that song now, and the feeling and the atmosphere of the time you wrote it?

HM: It was written by a friend of mine Philemon Ho. He came to New York with a show called Siponono. He was with Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu and Jonas Gwangwa. It’s great to have songs from South Africa like “Grazing in the Grass” and songs like “Pata Pata” and grooves like Ladysmith Black Mamabazo’s “Homeless.” It’s great to know that the music of the people you come from has a universal effect. I think that is what helped free us, because we were able to reach the whole world, and the whole world came to our side and said, “These people are something else! We can’t let them be oppressed. We need them to groove!” After Paul Simon did Graceland, every artist couldn’t do an album without an anti-apartheid or free Nelson Mandela song. So there’s something about South African music that is universal that hits the whole world. People embrace that music also because of our liberation struggle. But now we’re building a phase where people have to like us just because our music is good. I think the staying power of a song like “Grazing in the Grass”—which has been a hit for 3 different groups, and a number one hit for two of them—shows we’re going to have something that in future will touch the world in a much bigger way, because our way is clear now. It gives me great hope for the future.


To find out more about Hugh Masekela and his new Revival album, visit: http://www.headsup.com/ecards/3093/i-3093.asp Also visit: http://www.music.org.za/artist.asp?id=96