South Africa’s Struggle history is one that’s closely interwoven with music.
During the apartheid years, with the brutal apartheid regime silencing all forms of political protest, a large number of the country’s foremost artists became the voices of the oppressed, using their music to express – either cryptically or directly – what their fellow countrymen could not.
Their work not only uplifted and emboldened millions of South Africans, but united them by providing anthems that spoke to their deepest miseries and aspirations.
Now, more than 20 years after the country’s liberation, two of those artists – 77-year-old trumpeter extraordinaire, flugelhornist/cornetist, composer and singer Bra Hugh Masekela and 81-year-old pianist, songwriter and visionary Abdullah Ibrahim – will perform in two unique concerts, celebrating their respective, distinguished careers as jazz ambassadors, activists and humanitarians.
It won’t be the first time they’ve shared a stage: they performed together 57 years ago as members of the legendary Jazz Epistles, which included Kippie Moeketsi, Makhaya Ntshoko and Johnny Gertze. Formed in 1959, this was the first African jazz group to record an LP and sell out concerts around the country.
Three years previously, the young Masekela had performed in and toured with Todd Matshikiza’s African jazz opera King Kong, starring the Manhattan Brothers and Miriam Makeba (whom he would later marry).
Following the Sharpeville massacre and state of emergency in 1960, Masekela left for the UK, where iconic violinist Yehudi Menuhin and jazz legend John Dankworth got him admitted to the Guildhall School of Music. Thereafter he travelled to the USA, where he befriended singer and activist Harry Belafonte and studied classical trumpet at the Manhattan School of Music. An extraordinary career ensued, with global hits like Grazing in the Grass, Up, Up and Away, Stimela, Uptownship, Bring Him Back Home and Soweto Blues.
Masekela spent 30-odd years in self-imposed exile, based in the USA but spending prolonged periods in the UK, Botswana, Nigeria and other parts of Africa. Since his return to SA in the early 1990s, he has continued to tour, both locally and internationally, performing on the world’s most prestigious stages (including royal command performances in England). His dazzling instrumental technique, distinctive voice, generosity, consummate showmanship and seemingly inexhaustible energy have bewitched audiences wherever he has appeared and he has helped many upcoming artists establish their careers.
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Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly known as Dollar Brand) was born and raised in Cape Town’s District Six. His work reflects many musical influences of his childhood, from traditional African songs to Cape Town and Western jazz, gospel and ragas, and was also significantly informed by Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington.
Later, his style would evolve to etudes and tone poems overlaid with Islamic rhythms and haunting lyrics.
He and his wife, vocalist and composer Sathima Bea Benjamin, left SA in 1965 for New York. That same year, Ibrahim performed at the illustrious Newport Jazz Festival. A few months later, he led the Duke Ellington Orchestra on five occasions and eventually received a Rockefeller Foundation grant, which enabled him to enrol at the world-famous Juilliard School of Music.
Like Masekela, Ibrahim remained in self-imposed exile for several decades, appearing all over the world and using his music as a very effective voice to raise awareness of apartheid SA. Iconic works like Mannenberg and Tsakwe (a homage to his son) evoked his passion for his roots. He is also the father of New York underground rapper Jean Grae.
Since returning to SA in the mid-1990s, he has based himself in Cape Town, while continuing to tour abroad.
The Jazz Epistles concerts will feature Masekela and Ibrahim performing separate sets, but uniting for a grand finale. Both artists celebrate remarkable careers as supreme artists, social prophets and intrepid promoters of justice. With our country poised at yet another crossroads in its tortuous political journey, they have much to teach us – and more than enough artistry to inspire us.
May their music play on.
- Catch Jazz Epistles on 15-16 June at the Centre Court Arena of the Convention Centre, Emperors Palace, Johannesburg, presented by Touch Money and Ticketpro, in partnership with Talk Radio 702 and Audi. Bookings at Ticketpro.