Masekela Jazzes Up UCSB
by AJ Block


The UCSB Arts and Lectures jazz series usually brings at least one big name artist or group to UCSB every quarter. In Fall Quarter 2007, they brought jazz legend Herbie Hancock, a month ago trumpet player Terrance Blanchard, and last week South African trumpeter/singer Hugh Masekela. What’s really great about having these master artists is that Arts and Lectures often sets up workshops to give UCSB musicians a chance to play with and learn from these jazz masters.

This past Thursday, Masekela, who plays a blend of South African music, jazz, and many musical styles from around the world, came to talk to and rehearse with the UCSB jazz ensemble. He talked at length about his musical history, oppression in South Africa, coming to America and befriending some of the top musicians of the sixties and seventies, such as Harry Belafonte, Miles Davis, and Paul Simon, who he accompanied on his Graceland tour. He listened to and played with a small student jazz combo as well as the full UCSB Jazz Ensemble.

But the most important advice that Masekela gave was about musicianship, saying that one of the main characteristics of successful musicians is passion. “Don’t think of yourself as being a student,” he said, “but as being a nut about [music], and throw yourself into it as much as you can. I came from an academic family, but I was so crazy about music that to actually do it I had to run away from home. When they heard me play finally, they realized how passionate I was about it and then they let me play. I think passion and a little recklessness doesn’t hurt you.”

Masekela, whose Chissa All-Stars played to a packed Campbell Hall on Friday night, also suggested that aspiring musicians should be practicing two to three hours a day at the minimum. “You can’t practice everything,” he said, “you have to find out what your weak points are and work on them slowly.” While making it as a musician these days is arguably harder than ever, Masekela’s passion and a commitment to not forgetting his homeland drove him to fame in the U.S. in the late sixties. He had a smash instrumental hit in 1968 called “Grazing in the Grass,” (which I’m sure you would know if you heard it) that really boosted him to fame, especially in Southern California where he found his first major audience. In 1987, he released “Bring Him Back Home,” the song that would become the anthem for the movement to free imprisoned South African activist, and later president, Nelson Mandela.

Hugh Masekela cites musical styles from all over the world as his influences. He has gone through listening phases of Brazilian music, Gregorian Chants, and Flamenco, among others, and has deep roots to African music and Jazz. “The main thing also is to listen to everybody, you know, not just bebop or modern jazz players… You know, in other words, absorb, even the great singers. You can really learn from the hit songs that you get to like,” he explained.

If you want to check out some of Masekela’s music, there are many great videos on YouTube, including his hit “Grazing in the Grass,” and a video of him playing the inspiring anthem “Bring Him Back Home,” on tour with Paul Simon.