In his brilliant rumination on being in exile, the Palestinian polymath, Edward Said, writes, “Exile is strangely compelling to think about, but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, the self and its true home. Its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.”
The truth of this was brought home a few days ago, when I encountered online a celebratory concert for Hugh Masekela’s 70th birthday held at the Barbican Centre in London about 10 years ago. Masekela is accompanied by the full splendour and majesty of the London Symphony Orchestra and a 120-strong choir. I had been hunting for a video of the song Ikhaya Lami, which I had heard belted by Masekela in that epochal homecoming extravaganza, Sekunjalo, after a 30-year long exile.
In that concert, this song only lasted about two minutes, an appendage to the eponymous Sekunjalo. But it was sung with such joyful abandon, led by the shimmering beauty and artistry of that oomphy songstress, Faith Kekana, and a bevy of sisters whose voices soared and touched the stratosphere. We saw Masekela in rapture as he tore into the song with Tshepo Tshola, Frank Leepa, Jabu Khanyile and Mohapi “Funky” Masike. As the song reached its coda, Masekela and Tsola looked into each other’s eyes and broke into an incandescent smile, as if saying, “Brotherman, we are finally home. Unbelievable”. It was a poignant moment that only a video recording could capture.
The two had first met in exile in Lesotho, when Masekela went there after a 20-year absence for that historic concert with Miriam Makeba in December 1980. They would later rendezvous in Botswana, cooking up a delectable gumbo of music, memorialised in such unforgettable tunes as Tonight, Motlalepula and Pula Ea Na, before Masekela had to flee his redoubt in Gaborone after the South African Defence Force’s murderous incursion into that city on June 14 1985. His friend and ANC activist, George Phahle, and his wife Lindi were killed.
He and Tsola were now safely home, and that poignant smile broadcast their exultation.
The London concert video opens with the big, sonorous sound of a tuba as the orchestra builds up to a swirl with a brassy Jo’burg-style groove redolent of Todd Matshikiza’s jazz opera, King Kong. We then see a bunch of boys, some barefoot and wearing tattered garments, pantomiming a concert with makeshift musical instruments and doing the jitterbug. Masekela then steps up to the microphone and with exquisite nonchalance declaims, “Ndemka kudala,” and the 120 voices respond, “Ekhaya lami,” in an antiphonal call and response routine. Masekela then intones, “Ndalilibala” and the choir responds, “Ndi khumbul’ekhaya”. To see these white sisters effortlessly sing the Xhosa lyrics, accompanied by alumnae of the Manhattan Brothers, Sello Makhene, Sanza Loate and the ageless David Serame, in a rollicking song of joy and celebration, was pure bliss.
The British saxophonist and composer, Jason Yarde, who sports a Papa Penny hairstyle, intrudes into this “call and response” exchange. In a delightful duel with Masekela on trumpet, Yarde solos beautifully, with pointillist phrasing and vocabulary reminiscent of the late exiled saxophonist, Dudu Pukwana.
The spectacular joie de vivre at the Barbican, the fraternity of the kaleidoscope of colours on stage, was similar to what Zen Buddhists call an Enlightenment moment. Enlightenment is the mental and psychic breakthrough one attains after sitting in silent meditation for hours, days, even months contemplating “nothingness”. As the mind gets emptied of all contemplation, which Buddhists regard as the source of our pernicious ego and delusion, a breakthrough of transformative joy and wisdom occurs. The seeker of Enlightenment finally recognises one’s indivisibility from others. This is encapsulated in the salutation “Namaste”, which roughly translates as the “divine in me, acknowledges and honours the Divine in you”. The musicians on stage at the Barbican that evening had crossed those boundaries of separateness. A spirit of genuine human solidarity and oneness was palpable.
As the evening wound down and Masekela played Grazing in the Grass, the song that had catapulted him to global stardom, everyone was swaying and dancing, including the conductor.
It took me back to 1988 and an encounter I had with a musician in a small coffee shop in the college town of La Jolla in California. His standard repertoire was covering tunes by Duke Ellington and the crooner Johnny Hartman. On being introduced to me, he exclaimed, “Hey man, you from South Africa? You know Hugh Masekela? I love that dude’s music. Me and my o’lady do it to Grazing in the Grass”. I could not imagine anyone “doing it” to Grazing in the Grass. It seemed too up-tempo for such a sensitive and delicate enterprise. But I digress.Masekela’s oeuvre can be best described as a perennial quest for homecoming. He is the Odysseus-like figure of Greek mythology, longing and searching for home. There is a retro and plaintive quality to his music; a longing for the halcyon days of his youth. He is the native son who returned home, only to realise that his idea of home had become elusive, even irrecoverable, as Said postulates. For home is not merely a spatial or geographic construct. Home is, normatively, the place of refuge and safety we turn to for comfort and succour, repair and repose. It is a connection of family, community, heritage and values. A place closer to the romantic ideal that nourished our quest for freedom. An Olympus of justice and dignity, free of poverty, disease and the violence against women and children (and today free of the feral plunder of Covid-19 relief for the needy and a governing party in self-abnegation). Until then, Masekela and many others who dreamt and sang of freedom could not be truly and fully be at home.