‘Actually, in the beginning I think they thought I was some Afro-American, or maybe Irish or something. I don’t think they quite knew where I’d come from,‘ recalls Hugh Masekela of his initial early 60$ reception by a bemused US circuit. Almost thirty years later, a cursory glance at the tracks on his latest album Uptownship reveals the stylistic agility of the hornman‘s maturity as songs by Smokey Robinson, Gamble & Huffand Bob Marley nestle side by side with material that recalls the township jive he heard as a youngster. In the post-Graceland climate of widening audiences, Masekela’s polished African-American fusion is perhaps more relevant than ever, and his journey from Jo’burg ghetto kid to globally-respected musician and freedom fighter remains one of the most remarkable of recent times. Nowadays you‘ll hear more of him on flugelhorn and cornet, but back in 1955 a publicity-seeking trip to New York by the then Father Trevor
Huddlestone (’we called him the hoodlum priest’) brought back a .trumpet from Louis Armstrong to brandish in the face of South Africa‘s apartheid regime. Needless to say. the instrument was handed over to a
certain promising student named Masekela and proved an inspiration for the musical odyssey he was soon to undertake. ‘At that time I was playing basically straight-ahead bebop, and I knew that to develop my craft and explore my own capabilities I had to go to New York,’ Hugh explains. Yet even he could hardly have predicted that the coming decade was to culminate in a million-selling single (‘Grazing In The Grass’) that kept The Rolling Stones off the top of the American singles charts and a slot at Monterey alongside Jimi Hendrix and The Who.
The years spent building up his reputation in America were however to leave Masekela feeling far away from his creative wellspring in Africa, and from the early 70s onwards he’s been spending a lot of time playing with various musicians all over the continent, setting up a mobile studio just across the border from South Africa to record the high-profile 1984 album Techno Bush. ‘I would say that Botswana is now home for me. It's important for
Curiously, the single best—known fact about Sheena Easton in Britain — her discovery on ‘The Big Time‘ — is not documented at all by her California-based record company MCA. From the Scottish club circuit to EMI to her first single, ‘9 to 5’. selling a million in the USA alone — with not a mention of Esther.
It’s not surprising, because although the programme was instrumental to her success here, it is also something of a millstone. Her Stateside success dwarfs the dwindling support in this country. and she’s taken seriously over there. They look blank when you smirk about her doing the Royal Variety Show, and point out that as early as 1981, she scooped the ‘Best New Artist‘ Grammy, in 1982 she sang a Bond theme and performed at the Oscars, and the next year had her own TV special and topped the charts duetting with Kenny Rogers. Then they might barrack you with some impressive statistics: Sheena
me to recharge myself there,‘ adds the man who‘s been instrumental in setting up the country's foremost music school. ‘My dream is of a situation developing where the musicians in Africa have control of their own infrastructure, where they don‘t have to leave Africa and go to New York or Paris in order to advance themselves.‘
Having said that, the healthy state ofhis own international career shows the beneficial impact of his controversial decision to break the cultural boycott and join Paul Simon’s highly successful Graceland tour. ‘Paul brought South African music to millions of people who‘d never heard it before and that‘s the bottom line‘ stresses Masekela. His current backing outfit Kalahari (a blend of African and American players) maintains a busy club schedule, but at 51 their leader shows no sign of slowing down. ‘I can‘t imagine a better way of making a living. I still get immense satisfaction from rehearsing for five hours to play something perfectly for five minutes.‘ (Trevor Johnston)
Easton was the first artist ever to make the Top Five on all five ‘Billboard‘ charts: pop. R&B, dance, country and adult contemporary.
She had her crisis when the moms ofAmerica fell on her for singing the Prince song ‘Sugar Walls', about the joys of masturbation. but British listeners were more astonished that Prince could contemplate working with the MOR star in the first place. The album she recorded with top producers LA and Babyface was a further source ofbafﬂement. especially when she said it reflected ‘the feistiness that a lot ofpeople associate with me.‘
Memories are long, and British standards ofcredibility are quite different from American ones. but Sheena Easton has worked hard and seen that work pay off since she moved permanently to California. Now 31, when she plays in Glasgow she might find that she‘s left the spectre of Esther behind her at last. (Alastair Mabbott)
The List I — I4June 19909