Hugh Masekela is a hugely talented giant of jazz and world music and a pioneer in sharing the voice and spirit of South Africa with the rest of the world. His autobiography, Still Grazing, shares in rich detail the incredible story of his life, infused with love and loss, sex and drugs, exile and revolution. He survived it all, with wit, passion, abundant talent and wisdom. Still Grazing narrates a magical journey around the world in this epic, music-soaked tale of love, excess, exile and home.
First published in the USA in 2004, the initial run of Still Grazing proved so popular that the book was soon sold out and remained elusive to many of his fans, particularly in South Africa. Now, South African publisher Jacana Media has stepped in to publish a new version of the book. A new foreword and afterword to his autobiography will add fresh insights into the life of one of today’s few living world-class artists and rare spirits.
To mark the release, Jacana Media hosted a launch of the new, local edition of the book, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela, co-authored by Hugh Masekela and D Michael Cheers, at African Flavour Books in Vanderbiljpark, south of Johannesburg on Thursday 29 October. No aged 76, Masekela was on hand to talk about his memoirs and his remarkable, one-of-a-kind life.
Masekela’s life began in a South Africa haunted by violence, but redeemed by the consolations of family, music and adventure. As the grip of apartheid tightened, he was driven into exile and embarked on what would become a 30-year pilgrimage around the world. His first stop was New York City, where he was adopted by legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Harry Belafonte. Masekela lived through some of the most vital and colourful music scenes of our time: blowing with bebop greats in New York, playing with a young Bob Marley in Jamaica, hanging out with Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone in the 60s, and getting caught up in the madness of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat explosion in Lagos.
He loved extravagantly and was married to Miriam Makeba for some time, experimented wildly with drugs and alcohol, and stumbled into adventure after adventure. And through the hit musical Sarafina (which he conceived with Mbongeni Ngema), the Graceland tour he spearheaded with Paul Simon, and his fearless on-the-ground activism, he worked tirelessly to add his voice to the anti-apartheid movement.
When he eventually returned to South Africa in the early 1990s, he at last found the strength to confront the personal demons that had tracked him around the world, and attained a new measure of peace at home.
Unfolding against the backbeat of the most revolutionary musical movements of the last 40 years and one of the most inspiring political transformations of the 20th century, the book offers an utterly engrossing and deeply effecting chronicle of a remarkable, one-of-a-kind life.
In an article published in June 2015 in Books Live after he first signed the deal with Jacana, Masekela explained why the original 2004 edition has ‘disappeared’: “The way it came to South Africa, which is the only country where it went out of print, is because when I was signed to Sony Records, the head of Sony at the time was smart enough to agree to buy a whole consignment from Random House, and I twisted Exclusive Books’ arm to bring it into the country. So they brought in a limited amount, but you can’t find it now anywhere. In the States, they just put it out there, they didn’t do anything else. So it’s one of the world’s biggest secrets outside of South Africa – and in South Africa. But no matter where we go, people ask ‘Where can I buy the book? I’ve tried Amazon, I’ve tried Mississippi, I’ve tried the Nile River… so we’re happy that Jacana elected to release it.”
Masekela went on to say that he hoped his book would stand as an example of the forthrightness needed to turn the country around. “In 1990, when all the apartheid laws were dropped, we were probably one of the most intelligent societies in the world,” he said. “Since then, I think we have become dumbed down, not by freedom itself but by the hype that we are free now.”
“I don’t bite my tongue in this book,” Bra Hugh continued, adding to Jacana MD Bridget Impey: “I hope you have some bail money for me …”
“We’ll sell loads of copies of the book, and use that money,” she joked.
Masekela is currently writing an update to the book, as the original version ended in 2002. However, he explained how a large chunk was recently stolen from a train in Europe. “I had about 56 pages of what I’ve been writing,” he said. “But I just came back yesterday from a European tour, and we were on a train after a concert in Frankfurt, in first class, eight of us, and we were very relaxed – this was a luxury train – but when we got to Paris my suitcase was not there. I got very homesick right away,” he joked. “I lost 56 pages, my expensive pairs of shoes, three of my favourite ties, my lint remover – the things I miss most! So my advice to you is when you travel, don’t use an expensive suitcase. This is what I discovered after 60 years of travelling.”
Esteemed South African poet Mandla Langa said of the book: “Even though Still Grazing, Hugh Masekela’s biography, carries a subtitle that refers to his musical journey, the book is, in a word, the spiritual journey of black South Africans.”
Another notable South African poet, Don Mattera, added: “He lived to put his native South Africa on the front stage, not with a gun but with his trumpet. Singing and playing deep into the heart of apartheid darkness, bringing light and hope, laughter and rebirth, touching lives, giving hope, helping to rebuild the land of his birth, sharing his vision for a better world for the children of tomorrow. Hugh Masekela - a genius of our time.”
South African Nobel Prize laureate Nadine Gordimer, who passed away in July 2014, said of the book: “Music is the soaring theme that carries a rough ride… Hugh Masekela has survived it all, tells it all ardently, ribald and honest, from his admirable perspective of wisdom gained.”
All copies of the first local print run of Still Grazing will include Masekela’s latest CD, Playing @ Work. The title of the book stems from Masekela's breakthrough hit, 'Grazing in the Grass', which reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in the USA in 1968. The song remains one of Masekela's signature tunes, and was performed during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa - watch the video below.