Celebrated South African trumpeter and world-fusion music pioneer Hugh Masekela says helping end alcohol and drug addiction in his native South Africa is a driving force in his life, both on and off the stage. The 68-year-old musician, a recovered addict himself after decades of addiction, says he feels a duty to help others suffering from the same problems. His concern about these problems in South Africa intensified in the late 1990s when he resolved his own addictions through successful drug rehab.
Masekela made his name in America in 1968 with the Billboard number-one hit “Grazin’ in the Grass” – one of the few instrumental tracks to reach such heights. He has played with Herb Alpert and Bob Marley, performed on albums by the Byrds and recorded and toured for Paul Simon’s 1986 smash album, “Graceland.”
Masekela’s life did not have an easy start. In a recent newspaper interview he said that as a child his ambition was to “live inside the gramophone, so I could be with all those people in there.” But it wasn’t just love of music that made him want to escape reality: South Africa’s oppressive apartheid system had begun in 1948 when Masekela was 9 years old, and life for black South Africans became more of a struggle than ever.
By the time he was 20 he had recorded successful jazz albums and played professionally all over South Africa. But Masekela’s political leanings and the brutality of apartheid forced him into exile. With the help of friends like classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin and British bandleader Johnny Dankworth, Masakela traveled to England and later to America where he continued to perform and to further his musical studies. Calypso great Harry Belafonte offered help and advice, and fellow South African singer Miriam Makeba, to whom he was married for a few years in the ’60s, was also helpful to his career. In 1990, as apartheid was coming to an end, Masekela moved back home after 30 years of living abroad. He had released more than 30 albums and enjoyed international acclaim.
But all was not well. Masekela was suffering from more than 30 years of alcohol and drug abuse and was in serious need of drug rehab. His decision to enter a successful drug rehab program meant one more trip to England, but it was a journey to a new life.
In his 2004 autobiography, Grazin’ in The Grass: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masakela, he frankly discusses his personal struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. He says he had little confidence in his playing without using some sort of drug. But after getting clean through drug rehab and studying about addiction, he says now that he wants music to be his only addiction. And he wants to help his country by improving political and social conditions, including South Africa’s skyrocketing drug and alcohol addictions.
“South Africa is probably one of the most addicted countries in the world,” he said. “We are a very addictive society.” In the Western Cape region, for example, a recent study found that almost 20 percent of children start drinking before they are 13.
In the poor townships especially, many lives are seriously compromised and could be helped if successful alcohol and drug rehab were widely available. By using his celebrity to draw attention to the problem, Masekela hopes to effect positive changes.