Hugh Masekela on Detroit’s Heyday, American Idol and Nelson Mandela

or the self-proclaimed jazz buff, the royal sound of Hugh Masekela's trumpet should be all too familiar.

But Masekela, the famous South African trumpeter, would never limit himself to a narrowed genre or style.

With a symphonic repertoire of discography that covers a range of musical hues, Masekela's tunes are saturated with the influence of his teachers and idols, musical greats from Louis Armstrong and Jimi Hendrix to John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.

An instrumentalist, singer and composer, Masekela has been a musician since he was 14, and a music connoisseur all his life.

Growing up in the thick of the South African apartheid era (1948-1994), Masekela's lyrics tell the tales of government corruption, oppression and racism, and the beauty of the South African bush, creating fanfare to accompany the ambiance of cocktail parties and revolutions.


BLAC Detroit shared a few riffs with Masekela before his upcoming 8 p.m. performance April 4 at the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts. That night, he’ll celebrate his 74th birthday to allow Detroiters to join the party.

I would say welcome to Detroit, but this is not your first time here, is it?

Nah Man. I know Detroit from way back.

I used to play at Baker's [Keyboard] Lounge years ago in 1967. I played with Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. I opened for The Supremes. I knew Stevie [Wonder] when he was a boy.

I've seen Detroit from when it was a thriving city to a ghost town.

Well, it is good to have you back, but on your birthday? You did not want to take the night off?

Hey man, I am a musician and nobody pays me to celebrate [chuckling].

In the span of your career, you have delved into a wide-range of sounds and genres, what genre are you focusing on now?

I don't analyze music. That is [the audience's] job. I've been in music since I was a child, and I went into for the love of it. Not to get where I am today with fame, that is the media.  

I was just happy to be able to play all the time. I never categorize music. Music is to listen to.

What are you listening to right now?

I listen to everything. If you are passionate about music there are no types. It's music, and if it moves you it is good.

I even enjoy music that sometimes other people think I should not be listening to. I think being a musician is not for everyone. I don't watch [Fox Network’s] “American Idol,” especially when they are auditioning. That is painful. 

Your music is often considered to invoke a spirit of change, where do you think this spirit comes from?

As a South African, I saw injustice happen everyday. But I was one of 10 million people who objected to it.

I grew up in rallies. I grew up in marches and wall jumping and police chases. There were millions of songs during that time.

So resistance and activism are things we grew up with. My mother was a social worker, and we grew up with people who were wronged. It is not unique to me.

And your song "Bring Him Back Home" became the anthem to set Nelson Mandela free from prison.

That song came to me because Nelson Mandela sent me a birthday letter smuggled out from jail. And I just went to the piano.

My wife asked me, ‘When did you write that song? I've never heard that song before.’ I said I did not write it, Nelson just sent it.

Does the country you are in determine your selections for your concert?

There is not much a difference. Obviously, in South Africa, people respond more to the particular African styles.

I am just a musician who plays a cross section of South African music. I am a universal person in my head, and I don’t recognize borders.

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