Legendary jazz musician takes center stage in LA

The causes might have changed, but the spirit remains the same.

Iconic jazz instrumentalist Hugh Masekela is no longer fighting against apartheid or the incarceration of Nelson Mandela in his native home of South Africa, but the 72-year-old trumpeter is still far from satisfied.

In fact, it’s social issues that still seem to occupy his mind the most.

“Until we realize that we are the same people, as long as we recognize the colonial borders, really nothing else changes much,” Masekela said, his infectious energy evident in his words.

His dedication is obvious: One of Masekela’s biggest hits is called “Bring Him Home (Nelson Mandela),” so it’s clear his drive to call out injustice is not new.

“It is incumbent upon every human being to oppose injustice. I am not into music because I am taking a political stance — I am a human being and injustice is rife all over the world,” Masekela said. “If we don’t talk about it, and we think that it is just the duty of certain people in society, or [that] it is a duty of an artist to object against injustice, then there is something wrong with us as a society.”

Masekela can’t emphasize this enough. He considers his status as a musician secondary to the awareness he tries to raise about social issues across the world.

Masekela always seems ready to speak out about the issues he sees, especially those affecting his home continent Africa.

“Africans need to internationally realize that they are the same people. Freedom is just a word, because all we get [are] the votes and maybe the end of police harassment — it doesn’t necessarily empower us economically,” he said.

Masekela sees this passion for social justice as something he has to do as a person and is only enhanced by his being an artist.

His career as an acclaimed musician cannot be downplayed, however, as Masekela is now going on tour throughout the United States with a newly revamped band to promote his newest album, Jabulani.

He’s stopping in Los Angeles to play on Feb. 10 at UCLA’s Royce Hall and Masekela plans to feature his newest songs, though playing his most famous hits will still be mandatory if only out of a concern for personal safety.

“You know there are certain songs that if we don’t do then the audience will throw rotten tomatoes and eggs at us,” Masekela said.

Masekela is also full of praise about his new band members.

“They are outstanding players more than anything else. Together we make an unbelievable group. We play the old and the new, but I think we add a lot of teamwork and virtuosity to it,” he said.

His glowing review of his bandmates becomes more complimentary when put in the context of the artists Masekela has played with over the course of his career.

The names of his collaborators are impressive, including Bob Marley, Louis Armstrong and Paul Simon, among others.

Masekela has worked with legends, becoming an icon himself in the process. But he said he was attracted to these seminal artists for more than just their music. Again, he references the importance of having a social cause.

“I was tight with all those kinds of musicians because they objected openly to injustice. I became friends with and worked with those people because we had something in common, and also because we respected and admired each other musically,” Masekela said. “I admire people who don’t embrace injustice as [just the] duty of other people. I’m not into people who pass the buck.”

Masekela is also currently working on two albums: the first is an extensive box set of 40 American music standards done with legendary jazz pianist Larry Willis. The second is an album with his current group. Both projects should be released in April or May.

Even with all of Masekela’s efforts as a musician, however, it remains clear what is most important to him.

“The fact that I object to injustice is just coincidental [with my being] a musician,” Masekela said. “If I was a garbageman, I would still object to it.”