GOOGLE an Aries’ traits and you will find that they are; Creative, independent, spontaneous and quite stylish.
Hugh Masekela, who died today a year ago was an Aries, born on April 4th. The jazz legend was an obvious creative, a staunch independent man while his travels showed his spontaneity and had he a penchant for fine apparel.
Maybe it might be hard to think of him as independent, looking at the rate at which he collaborated with other artists throughout his career. But his independence shone brighter under the cloud of collaboration in the slew of bands he was part of. Masekela, together with Dollar Brand (now known as Abdul Ibrahim), Kippie Moeketsi, Makhaya Ntshoko and Jonny Gertze make-up the first African jazz ensemble, Jazz Epistles, to record an LP in 1959.
They sold out shows in different parts of the country, but he understood that he couldn’t stay in South Africa because of dump-ass apartheid system. With lyrics swelling of anti-government chants, he left the country for London but soon moved from the UK after meeting Harry Belafonte and became a student at New York’s Manhattan School of Music. Despite spending a large part of his time in the US and other parts of the world, Masekela never discarded his South African pride, languages and cultures. He was an independent thinker who understood his role.
His style isn’t the culture-defining kinda stuff that a Bob Marley made look seamless in his Adidas tracksuits. But Masekela was savvy enough to dress himself in adequate class and eight times out of 10, you’d see the old man rocking his newsboy cap that he was very fond of with a dashiki to mark his pride and love for Africa. Whatever he wore, he manged to partake in the day’s fashion, remain true to himself and be comfortable on stage.
He always had the juice. Not only was he an astute jazz musician who composed some of the greatest music of our time, Masekela also knew how to use that music into other spheres in the art spaces for education, entertainment and activism. Together with comedian Kagiso Lediga, Maskela created late night talk show The Bantu Hour.
Built around the most famous boxing match in history, the Muhammed Ali vs George Foreman fight, Masekela with close friend Stewart Levine, organised a music festival, Zaire 74 in Kinshasa.
He ingeniously managed to fuse different styles of music to create something new- another reason for his longevity. In 1985 he founded the Botswana International School of Music, which still exists today.
Nelson Mandela wrote him a warm birthday letter while the former statesman was still in prison. In response and out of the blue at a party, Hugh went to the piano and began singing what we know today as Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela) which became an instant hit.
He travelled and lived in different parts of the world for numerous reasons. His discography paints a picture of how natural he was at creating music. After spending a lot of time in the US and Europe, he came back to Africa and worked with West African band from Ghana, Hedzoleh Soundz to make some Afro-beat inspired tunes.
But around the mid-80s he was based in Botswana where he made music inspired by Southern sounds such as Mbaqanga. He sporadically changed sounds; it’s as though he knew what sound was right for his audience at the time. Because of his spontaneity, his music organically reflected the times.
THE air filled with the smell of dank blunt, omnipresent quarts of Black Label and Boom bap sounds racing out the speakers, a graffiti portrait of Ben Sharpa was the backdrop of the stage, and the DJ scratched on classic Hip Hop joints, when each speaker came forward-could’ve sworn it was one of those old school Hip Hop sessions at Ben Sharpa’s memorial service last night in Newtown, Johannesburg.
Hosted at the Stop Sign Art gallery, the service served its purpose in how it captured and celebrated who the man was. Whilst also reuniting old friends. Kgotso ‘Ben Sharpa’ Semela passed away last week due to complications from diabetes.
“The funny thing is, I knew him as Cilo, his baby nickname. Then he was Kaptin, I wasn’t there. The only thing I knew about Ben Sharpa was in the media. I knew him as Cilo when we were like 18, 19 year olds,” says comedian and foodie Tshepo Mogale. Mogale was Sharpa’s roommate at the University of Cape Town where they met around 1996.
Mogale was fortunate enough to see Sharpa just a day before his passing. “I hadn’t seen him in over 15 years. Then I got a call that he’s in hospital…I was so apprehensive to go see him- if last time I saw you was good times, then I hear you’re in a fucked up situation, it could be kinda awkward. But one of my boys said I should go and I went and the look in the guy’s face man, it’s one of those priceless moments ever.”
They spent at least two hours together reminiscing about old times. Mogale was one of the speakers at the service, whose speech was quite emotional. “I learnt so much from him. I just couldn’t say it in front of his mother up there, but he taught me how to untie a bra with one hand. He was like an encyclopaedia who knew everything and had rhymes for days.”
Osmic was still in Grade 7 when he first saw Sharpa performing at Le Club. “I looked up to him as a kid and I was like ‘oh shit, so this is how it’s done.’ I think we all saw Ben Sharpa the same way I probably saw him. We had nothing but respect for him and I think that’s what this is, people coming to say ‘big up’. Any parent would be super happy that their son is celebrated in this manner,” the Back To the City founder says.
After the formal ceremony had wrapped up, Breeze Yoko who was the night’s master of ceremonies went outside with a cordless mic asking fellas to jump on the beat and drop some bars. The cypher went on for hours. Speaking after the formal ceremony, Sharpa’s mother got on the mic while kats were free styling to say that she’s grateful to those who came and to see who his son was and how he lived, despite the fact that Hip Hop doesn’t sufficiently reward rappers- he loved what he did.
Those in attendance included Hymphatic Thabs, former Hype magazine editor Mizi Mtshali, skater Wandile Msomi, actress Renate Stuurman with her partner Krook’d tha Warmonga and a number of other Hip Hop heads.
Co-founder of BTC Dominique Soma, was also present but rushed out to a gig soon as the formal service was done. “Ben Sharpa deserved to get this reception. I haven’t seen these people in years, I feel like it’s a bit of a time warp…kinda taking me back to another time of my life. Very nostalgic.”
Comedian, writer and film director Kagiso Lediga says he was touched and moved by the whole service. Like Mogale, he too met Sharpa in Cape Town during their varsity days. With Hegemony playing in the background, Lediga says “I wanted to come and pay my respects. He was a very wise guy, who always spoke in concepts like his sister was saying. If he spoke about his passing, would he imagine we’d be all here like this…for me this is quite special, seeing all these faces, people I haven’t seen in a long time.”