Listen to this track by South African horn master and jazz crossover champeen, Hugh Masekela. It’s “Part Of A Whole”, the opening track on his 1972 landmark album Home Is Where The Music Is.
This cut is practically seething with joy, full of his own lilting trumpet, the energetic and versatile drumming of Makaya Ntshoko and the playful alto sax lines of Dudu Pakwana, along with American jazz musician Larry Willis on Fender Rhodes, and Puerto Rican-born bassist Eddie Gomez filling out the lineup.
It’s hard to imagine this kind of joie d’vive coming out of musicians that hailed from a region of the world that suffered under the oppression of Apartheid. As a musical figure, Masekela rallyed against this dangerous and oppressive political climate that also housed a hotbed of musical delights. In this way this is music that is, in its own way, very political. Further to that, I think that political reach extends outside of South Africa to regions closer to home, too.
Masekela is likely best known among casual music fans for his “Grazin’ In The Grass” single, his appearance at the 1967 Monterrey Pop Festival, or his appearance in Paul Simon’s Graceland concert, during which he sang “Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)”. Perhaps from the Simon appearance, it would be hard to conceive that Masekela had also laid down the kind of progressive instrumental music that touched on American soul jazz and straight ahead hard bop you’re hearing on “Part Of A Whole” so effortlessly, and so joyfully as well.
Listen to how well matched and attuned Masekela’s trumpet and Pakwana’s alto are, as if the two are “singing” the parts in a duet. You can almost hear the words to this song, just out of reach. Willis, Gomez, and Ntshoko are a highly sympathetic rhythm section, building a potent amount of tension, full of the same joyous energy to match the solos, and full of subtle call and response. That really is the right word for this, too – joyous.
In the middle of that on this track, I think that the joy itself that is bursting this tune at the seams stands as a kind of defiance to the suffering found in Masekela’s homeland, that saw both sax player Pakwana and drummer Ntshoko effectively exiled from South Africa, because the mixed-race bands of which they were a part were illegal there. As overtly political as Masekela’s music would be at other points in his career, this is a common thread to be found in his music, and certainly on this cut; joy despite oppression. In fact, the joy here is so palpable, that it’s kind of a “fuck you” with a smile on its face to a system that sought to keep musicians of various backgrounds from gathering together in the same place, let alone from collaborating artistically together.
Of course, it must be remembered that jazz itself came out of oppressed communities, developing out of the era of the Reconstruction after the American Civil war. Jazz was music that originally came from outside of the mainstream in that context, a time when emancipation was law, but was not yet an integrated social idea in American culture. Black people were legally free. And yet, they were still under the boot of a prevailing culture that did not fully admit them, and in fact segregated them in much the same way the South African authorities did when a teenaged Hugh Masekela was given his first trumpet by equal rights advocate Father Trevor Huddleston. In both contexts, jazz was the music of the oppressed. As joyous and as liberating as even the earliest jazz music was, perhaps it too contained a “fuck you” with a smile on its face. Yet, it turned out to be more of an invitation to join in, informing several streams of popular music through the twentieth century and beyond.
As powerful as a protest song with strident calls to arms can be, maybe the most infuriating thing of all to the powers that be is that sense of joy, showing outward signs of not being crushed by the wheels of oppressive systems and ideas. And as proven by how Hugh Masekela has become a cultural ambassasor from South Africa to the world, that kind of joy found in the music has become an anti-toxin against narrow-mindedness and binary thinking. This is true of many kinds of music, but especially those forms that are born from cultures joining together, rather than being kept apart.
Hugh Masekela is an active musician today. Learn more about his extensive career as an intrumentalist and activist at hughmasekela.co.za.