South African musician Hugh Masekela is beloved across the world for his work as a composer, trumpeter, flugelhornist, bandleader, and singer, as well as his defiant political voice. Pianist Larry Willis met Masekela when they were both students at the Manhattan School of Music some 50 years ago. Since then, Willis has performed or recorded with almost every great jazz musician of the modern era, from Dizzy Gillespie to Cannonball Adderley.
Masekela and Willis perform in a rare duet performance being called "Best of Friends" on Wednesday, Dec. 2 at the Music Hall.
We jumped at the opportunity to chat with Masekela, who was driving as he spoke to us. As a part of Masekela's daily routine, he spoke of the importance of exercising, eating well, and (his words) practice, practice practice. On the morning of the interview, Hugh ate oatmeal with raisins and soy milk. He said he wasn't sure what he would have for lunch, but that it would be something nice.
Metro Times: How do you find the energy to perform and tour internationally like you do, at 76?
Hugh Masekela: It's not a matter of how do you do it. It's a matter of why get rid of the witchcraft that has bewitched me since I was a kid?
MT: Is there anything musically that you have yet to accomplish?
Masekela: You can never do all the things you wanted. Music is not man-made; it is a part of nature.
You can't cut down all the trees you see. If you are a lumberjack you can be lumberjack of the year. But you are still going to leave a lot of trees in the forest. That is how music is.
MT: Who have been your greatest influences, both musically and non-musically?
Masekela: I'm not a choosy person. I have been inspired by everything that is excellent. I'm driving through Pennsylvania; it's a perfect blue sky with a few clouds up there. That is the perfection of nature. There is nothing that is perfect but nature itself. There is nothing more inspiring. We human beings are a very small part of nature. I think that if we could learn that then we would be more understanding of the world and humanity. We probably wouldn't go to war. I feel like the illusion human beings are under is that we invented the world.
MT: Are you concerned with the impact humans have on nature?
Masekela: What is more destructive than human beings? We are the parasites of the universe. I particularly suspect that in the next century or less, we are going to self-destruct as a species.
MT: What can we do to prevent self-destruction?
Masekela: We can't do anything! That is the way we are — we've always been like that. And if you read the Koran, the Bible or black history — we've always been destructive. To be a good human being is a very hard thing. It is something to work at, but people aren't interested in working at being good. Most people!
MT: Why do you think that people don't want to work at being good?
Masekela: Human nature. We've just evolved [that way] as a species. (Laughs)
MT: Can you tell me about the Heritage Restoration?
Masekela: Well, I've been interested in heritage because we are living in a world that is more geared to the future. We've forgotten the origins of [our] heritage and where we come from. If you don't know where you're coming from then you ain't going nowhere in life, in my view.
MT: Do you feel a strong connection to your ancestry?
Masekela: It is frustrating that people don't know more [about where they come from]. I am a direct product of my forbearers and if I don't know it, then I can't be a direct product of a vacuum.
MT: What was your experience like coming to the United States during the civil rights movement, after having grown up through some of the most severe periods of apartheid?
Masekela: Well, you know, I was very well schooled and voraciously read, so I wasn't coming to a strange place. People of European origin, internationally, were raised with a superiority complex. Unfortunately, being a person of African origin — we've been a target of that superiority and that is something that will never go away. So, I wasn't surprised when I came here. I knew what to expect. I knew what to expect since I was a little child but I always thought it was so fucking comical and I knew I was going to beat it. That's always been my strength. Injustice has always been irritating for me, but I knew about injustice since I was an infant.
MT: Do you think we will ever get to a place where these injustices don't exist?
Masekela: I don't think racism will ever go away. It is part of the human curse.
MT: If you were trapped on a deserted island and could only have three things, what would they be?
Masekela: Music, music, and music.
MT: Do you keep up with popular culture?
Masekela: I keep up with everything, man. I've always been curious. I read, read, read, write, write write. I wanna make sure I know what is happening.
Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis perform at the Music Hall Main Stage on Wednesday, Dec. 2nd. Starts at 8 p.m.; 350 Madison St., Detroit; musichall.org; Tickets at $45 and $70.