Hugh Masekela’s Righteous Rhythms

As a warrior artist I like to feature art by other warrior artist or pieces of art that inspire warrior artists, and these two tracks by South African horn player Hugh Masekela are just that. Born April 4, 1939 music found Masekela at a young age. He took up trumpet at 14, and after quickly mastering it went on to lead several jazz ensembles. Growing up in apartheid South Africa, his music has always been a reflection and form of protest against the system that enslaved his people. For those very same reasons he was also forced to leave the country for awhile, as state repression intensified with murder and laws banning gatherings of people. The below tracks are off of Masekela’s second 45 release in the US, ‘Mace and Grenades,’ which contains the equally incredible b-side ‘Riot’. Both tracks have their own distinct sound, but also contain a cross between soul, funk and jazz reminiscent of that year, 1969, where jazz was beginning to shift again into funky directions, which would explode throughout the 70s and 80s. It was loosened up by Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane at the start of the 60’s, freeing jazz in new directions like the black power movements that would erupt simultaneously in riots across the world’s ghetto’s. Watts to South Africa.

The music on the first track ‘Mace and Grenades’ is beautifully intense; a kind of artful and controlled chaos. The drums and guitar set the rhythm of the track with the hi-hats crashing up against the powerful trumpet. Masekela’s horn-like vocals sear into the track 30 seconds later belting out ‘mace and grenades, machine guns, bazookas going off all around. I’m in jail out here’. The B-side ‘Riot’ has a similar controlled loose sound to the musical composition and the horn parts, but the vibe is more upbeat. The grooving guitar rhythm provides a nice backdrop for Masekela to play with the trumpet.

Hugh Masekela performing at the Monterey Pop Festival June 1967

I appreciate that the title is riot, because riots are so often characterized in negative ways by the monopolizing bourgeois press to breed fear of the people among the people. A divisive strategy employed by a divisive system that gains everyday from our losses. Are we suppose to just take it numbly? My public education experience was not enough to inoculate me in bourgeois dreams of false consciousness when I saw my father escape responsibility through crack pipes fed to him from the same system that sought to suck every bit of energy my mother had in wage labor to make up for the absence. To me a riot is nothing but an expression of the people. A response in free form and that is good. It is good when the people are in movement together.and art, like a riot is movement and expression. Of course it is better when these movements sharpen into collective conscious actions employed with revolutionary means. This requires a shift in consciousness among the people. When the people begin to understand the truth behind their oppressive and exploitative conditions they might be inspired to do something about it. This shift in consciousness is nurtured most deeply through life experiences and direct participation in struggle. But it is also developed through reading and studying the world; history and culture. Art, like theory, is an expression of idea’s in different forms, and can inspire and inform people about the world. It also nurtures the spirit and helps keep it uplifted, which is necessary work if we are to sustain ourselves for the coming tides of struggles. These two Masekela jams, produced during a global wave of revolutionary movement in 1969, are still a beautiful source of inspiration over 40 years later. Because even though apartheid is ‘over’ the legacy of colonization continues to structure the country like it does everywhere else. And Africans, black African’s, continue to have the lowest paying and most dangerous jobs. The recent massacre of striking South African miners is an example of the level of oppression and exploitation that continues to exist within South Africa and through out the world, and Masakela’s music continues to be relevant to what is happening politically. When I listen to these tracks I am reminded of the ways art can stand the test of time in similar ways that writing and theory do. It is powerful, because it shapes people and people shape the world.

I like my jazz on overcast afternoons where I draw back the curtains on my big windows and let the gray fill up the room, feeling bluesy and romantic; or I like it late at night when candles are lit and my mind is fuzzy, but awake, nonetheless, in contemplation…but these jams are worthwhile any time of the day, regardless of weather forecast and mental state. Hope you enjoy!


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