Hugh Masekela was a great musician and one of the most photogenic of his generation. This photograph, taken by Jak Kilby is my favourite. It must have been taken at one of the solidarity concerts for the release of Nelson Mandela in London during the 1980s. Masekela was flying high on the high notes, completely absorbed in his music. At the same time, his eyes were peeled on a side attraction – possibly a stunningly beautiful attraction.
This photo captures a unique aspect of Masekela’s character and what inspired his extraordinary musical talent – His love for life, its beauty and thrills, the things that moved him, what he saw and personally experienced. These often turned a serious and meticulous performer into a funny and gregarious man. Masekela was in that mood when I first encountered him in Accra, Ghana during the 1970s.
Accra’s Swinging 70s
It was midnight at Keteke, one of the hottest discos in Accra, if not the entire stretch of the Atlantic coastline. A great place to be, even for an impressionable underage boy like me. Keteke was off the high street in Osu, tucked away in the corner of “Abbey Road”, so-called by a hip-high living group of youngsters, mostly sons of Ghana’s elite, sold on British and American pop culture. Some of my cousins lived there so I followed a couple of their older friends to Keteke, to ‘dig the scene’.
I was too young to enter so I tried my usual trick – pose with a lighted cigarette and stroll in as confidently as I could muster, in my oversized Dashiki shirt and bell-bottom trousers. I got past the bouncers at the main door but the one at the entrance to the chilled disco would not be fooled. Tornado was the guy, all seven feet of him with a permanently distorted face. He blocked my way and asked me to “gerrout!” His huge hands insinuated a slap so I did exactly as I was told. Nobody argued with Tornado. He was a well known Ganja General and thought to be slightly deranged.
I decided to go home but I did not have the keys to the house. I asked a friend to go inside the disco and get the keys from my cousins but he came back with a new girlfriend to buy PK gum. He winked at me and smiled, making it obvious he had better things to do than pass on messages.
Tornado soon came rushing out of the disco yelling “Masakila,! Masakila! Glazii in the glass!’ That was his take on the name of the South African Jazz musician and “Grazing in the Grass”, his hugely popular hit album. The man himself stepped out, a cool funky looking dude with three of the hottest girls God ever created. They were all in tall red shiny platform shoes and dangling their Coca Cola bottle-shaped bodies beautifully. Masekela should have also been in slightly taller platform shoes to match but that didn’t really matter. He was the man! As he got closer, I stepped forward to shake his hand.
“Nice dashiki. What are you doing here? ” asked Masekela. I tried to explain but Tonardo drowned me out”Mesikila ! Mesikila !”, he shouted.
“Nerr, take this”, Masekela said. “Buy Kelewele,” as he dropped a 10 pesewa coin into my dashiki pocket. The girls grabbed his attention again and they were off. Tornado followed them to their car. I was tempted to dash into the disco but my cousin’s friends appeared and took me home.
100 Club London
The next time I saw Masekela was in the late 1970s, at London’s 100 Club on Oxford Street. I was then a student at the London School of Economics, a few bus stops away. 100 Club was not as exciting as Keteke but great as a live venue for an older crowd. Age rarely affected my tastes in music but I was glad the days of sneaking into clubs were over.
Most of the crowd were South Africans and fans of African Jazz. Africa Centre was not far from here. That was where most of the African creative arts events happened regularly. There was a popular disco night on Fridays with DJ Wala, who was also a drummer and member of our group, the African Dawn.
Those days, London functioned as the unofficial cultural capital of Africa. The Jazz night at 100 Club was run by Julian Bahula, the iconic South African drummer and his white wife. It was in a small basement jammed packed with mostly exiled South Africans and British lovers of African music. Those were the heady days of the Anti Apartheid movement so there were also many activists sympathetic to the African Liberation movements fighting in South Africa, Mozambique, Angola and Guinea Bissau.
The musicians mingled freely with the crowd and the running joke was that they included a few diabolical spies of the Apartheid South African regime who could not stay away from the great township Jazz music. The roll call of artists that took the stage was formidable, legendary – Dudu Pukwana, Louie Moholo, Lucky Ranku, Mervyn Africa, Masekela, Macgregor, Vicky Mhlongo, Graham Morgan, Mogotsi Mothle and many other leading lights.
One night, I spotted Masekela at the bar and quickly made a beeline for him He was surrounded by fans and admirers, and a couple of eye-catching girls. Not as sensational as the Keteke girls, I must admit. I waited for my turn to speak to him but made no progress. Then I figured I needed to do something special to catch his attention.
“Ahh Chale”, I called out.
“Yes Chale” he replied instinctively and turned around. A true Ghanaian at heart. I might as well have called his name.
“Hey, how are you doing?”.
“I’m fine,” I said “But I want some Kelewele” He laughed.
“From where are you getting Kelewele at this time?” ”
“Ahh, Accra boy!”
I nodded and told him about our Keteke encounter. He struggled to remember but he enjoyed every bit of the story.
“So did you buy the Kelewele?” he asked. I shook my head. He stretched his hand.
‘It is only 10 pesewas, less than a penny. Naa, my son, it’s very simple. My money back or you get me a cold bottle of beer”
I called the barman to order but he slapped a ten-pound note down on the counter. He was laughing. I was laughing.
I met Masekela again a few more times. The last time was at Goethe Institut in Accra, a few years before he died. This time Masekela remembered me and asked for his Kelewle money back. We laughed again and embraced.