Hugh Masekela – “Grazing In the Grass”

Hugh MasekelaThis South African trumpeter scored a massive worldwide hit with “Grazing In The Grass,” becoming one of the biggest names in African music in the process.

South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela has at times been cursed in his life. But he’s emerged on the other side, coming back strong since the end of apartheid, settled back at home, having conquered demons personal and political. He is still making music on the cornet and flugelhorn and singing.

 

Hugh Ramopolo Masekela was born on 4 April 1939 in Witbank, near Johannesburg. Masekela showed musical ability from a young age, and began to play piano as a child. 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.

As the apartheid situation in South Africa worsened, Masekela left for London, then New York, where friends (principally countrywoman Miriam Makeba, to whom he was briefly married) helped him land a place at the Manhattan School of Music. Masekela played on the Byrds’ classic rock hit “So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star” and performed at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of ’67.

Already unclassifiable because of the breadth of his music, the next year “Grazin’ In The Grass” made him a huge pop star with its laid-back, easy vibe, hitting the charts in several countries—it reached number one on the Billboard pop and R&B charts in America. The track itself was just filler, recorded in half an hour, but it brought him international fame; suddenly, he was a headlining name. Then, in 1972, he turned his back on all that, and headed back to Africa.

 

After moving through several countries, he hooked up with Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, who introduced him to the Ghanaian band Hedzoleh Sound, with whom Masekela recorded a string of hits. In the 1980s, Masekela set up a mobile studio in Botswana, where he further developed his musical style using African mbaqanga strains. Masekela performed with Paul Simon on the Graceland tour, along with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Masekela defended Simon vigorously when the tour was seen as a violation of the African National Congress’ cultural boycott. His 1987 hit ‘Bring Him Back Home’ became the anthem for Nelson Mandela’s world tour, following his release from prison in 1992.

Masekela then returned to England, co-penning the successful musical Sarafina before joining Paul Simon’s Graceland tour. Finally, with the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990, Masekela was able to return to South Africa, recording and touring there once more.

“Swinging Addis”- The Birth of Ethiopian Jazz

The story begins in 1896, following Ethiopia’s victory against the invading Italians at the Battle of Adwa. Russian tsar Nicolas II sent Emperor Menelik 40 brass instruments. It became the imperial music – and planted a seed. Then, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1924, the prince who would become Emperor Haile Selassie met a marching band of young Armenians orphaned in the recent Ottoman massacres. He shipped the “Arba Lijoch” (“Forty Kids”) back to Addis Ababa and installed them as the imperial band. The emperor’s new big band ensembles proved to be incubators for the stars of a new sound craved by a young generation demanding musical – as well as social and political – change.

The father of Ethio-Jazz is Mulatu Astatke. Born in 1943 in Jimma, a city in the Western part of Ethiopia, Astatke unexpectedly chose to study aeronautic engineering in North Wales in the late 1950s. Formally introduced to music and the arts during his studies, he eventually discovered his natural talent and passion for music. Inspired by other African students in Trinity College in London who were presenting their music and culture to European audiences, he started to want to compose and promote Ethiopian music. After much thought and improvisation, Astatke finally managed to combine the unusual pentatonic scale-based melodies of traditional Ethiopian music with the 12-note harmonies and instrumentation of Western music, giving birth to ‘Ethio-Jazz’. The bigger jazz scene in New York compelled Astatke to move once again, and it was during the 1960s that Ethio-Jazz fully came to life. Greatly inspired by the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

In Addis Ababa, Emperor Selassie had made a number of liberal changes following the social turmoil of 1960, and Addis was in full swing. The period up until the mid-1970s was described as the country’s golden age of music and creativity. Although this new music style was first met with distrust of those who feared a cultural colonization, Ethio-Jazz eventually picked up momentum with a fast-growing appreciation during the last days of Selassie’s reign.

Gétatchew Mèkurya

Apart from Astatke, there are others musicians who greatly contributed to transform the country’s musical landscape in the 1960s. Saxophonist Gétatchew Mèkurya, who started his career at the Addis Ababa city band and went on to play alongside many of Ethiopia’s biggest orchestras, later releasing his acclaimed album Negus of Ethiopian Sax. Another unforgettable Ethio-Jazz veteran is Mahmoud Ahmed, who is often mentioned together with Astatke, whenever Ethio-Jazz comes to mind. Ahmed became similarly famous for combining Ethiopian music with western jazz and rock, and released the album Ere Mela Mela in 1975. Famous Ethio-Jazz singers include Alemayehu Eshete who, together with Girma Bèyène, founded the Alem-Girma Band and composed about 30 singles before the arrival of the Communist regime.

The Derg, the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile-Mariam in 1974 squashed Ethiopia’s budding musical scene and liberal social life. Considered a Western import, much of Ethiopia’s popular music was censored, and musical creation and practice were largely limited to patriotic songs. As a result, many musicians fled the country or kept a low profile, and a generation grew up with hardly any memory of Ethio-Jazz. In spite of this, Astatke opted to remain in the country. As a board member of the International Jazz Federation, this afforded him a certain amount of freedom as well as a chance to travel.

The revival of Ethiopian music as a world export started in 1997 with Francis Falceto, a French music producer, fascinated with “World Music” by compiling a 23-volume series called Ethiopiques on the French label Buda Musique. Through this extensive series, Ethio-Jazz finally hit the international scenes on the eve of the new millennium as various actors in the world music arena become acquainted with and captivated by Astatke’s work. Ethio-Jazz reached an even wider audience when Jim Jarmusch, completely taken in by Astatke’s work, used a number of Astatke’s songs in the soundtrack of his film Broken Flowers in 2005.

Just over 70 years old, Mulatu Astatke is as active as ever. Completely absorbed by music, Astatke continues to innovate, modernising traditional instruments, taking up new opportunities for musical cross fertilisation and tirelessly working on establishing a profound imprint of Ethio-Jazz on the history of world music. On top of participating actively in a number of festivals and speaking at international events, Astatke has also established the African Jazz Village, a music school and jazz club dedicated to promoting Ethio-Jazz in Addis. Working closely with young bands and his students, Astatke is paving the way for the next wave of Ethio-Jazz musicians. Far from being a passing music phase of the moment, Ethio-Jazz has continued to thrive in the modern day Ethiopia and beyond, against all odds, constantly evolving but staying true to its strong Ethiopian roots.