Hugh Masakela at The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam

by Micah Hendler:

Last Friday, I saw a performance at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.   The Concertgebouw is renowned as one of the world’s foremost concert halls, particularly for orchestras. It has the names of all the famous composers of the Western tradition emblazoned on the balcony, as well as many I’d never heard of, whom I assume to be Dutch composers.  The audience, whose skin and hair was mostly of whiter shades, was seated in red velvet chairs after having sipped wine in the foyer, ready for a performance of Mozart piano sonatas.  But the performer of the evening was Hugh Masakela — a black South African jazz trumpeter known for his social activism and his 1968 hit, “Grazin’ in the Grass” (arranged by the Duke’s Men my freshman year, actually).  He was backed by a band of South Africans who played keyboard, bass, guitar, and drum set, as well as a Senegalese multi-percussionist who played, among other instruments, the most amazing talking drum I’ve ever heard.  Masakela led the show with his trumpet, vocals both spoken and sung about his life and experience growing up in South Africa and performing all over the world, and a guiro and cowbell which he played during other members’ solos. Listen below to a version of “Grazin’ in the Grass”:

01 Grazin’ in the Grass

But no African musical performance would be complete without its twin sister, dance.  Even in his seventies, Hugh Masakela could get low and expected us to do the same.  The audience, conditioned by the hall and the classical etiquette of simply appreciating a musical monument in reverent silence, was a bit hesitant, though he eventually got us on our feet.  It was interesting to watch Hugh Masakela’s set, with its African-derived modes of discourse, fit into the very Western space we were in.  His set would have fit better either in a more intimate jazz club, where there could be more give-and-take between the performers and the audience, or in a large outdoor concert venue for a huge crowd of people who were on their feet and ready to dance and shout unconstrained by the watching eyes of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.  Yet here he was at the Concertgebouw, and after his first number he paid homage to the great composers whose names graced the balcony. (He attended the Manhattan School of Music for a few years for advanced classical study in trumpet, after all.

The Concergebouw is one of the world's foremost concert halls. (Topping/Creative Commons)

Masakela gave a great performance, playing everything from standards to original numbers to South African freedom songs, and everyone loved it.  But halfway through the concert, I realized one simple fact: it was Dutch colonists in South Africa who were responsible for apartheid, and here was Hugh Masakela, an artist known for his activism against the regime, performing for a Dutch audience.  I’ll let that sink in for a moment.  Now I’m sure that this isn’t the first time a black South African has performed in Amsterdam; for all I know, Hugh Masakela has performed at the Concertgebouw before.  But the symbolism was still powerful.  And beyond that, it was clear that Masakela came as an ambassador of goodwill, holding strikingly little against the Dutch as a people, or the specific members of the audience (at least as he showed in the concert).  He demonstrated this astoundingly in the jokes he would tell in between songs.  He told us that he tried to propose to a Dutch girl here in Amsterdam in Afrikaans and she said he sounded like a small child (Afrikaans is a vastly simplified form of Dutch).  He also regaled us with the story of his birth in a small town outside of Amsterdam, with blond hair and white skin. One day, he said, he fell into a canal and was washed all the way down to the Cape of Good Hope, where the sea lions and the oil and mud in the water turned his hair and skin black, so that when an African couple was walking down the street, they saw him in the rushes and adopted him as their own.  “But really,” he added, “my name is [insert exorbitantly long Dutch name].  The third.”  Obviously jokes like this are part of his shtick, which he has honed to a science over decades of performing internationally. Still, it struck me that he was able to separate what I’m sure must have been many years of resentment against the Dutch from his performance that night, and that he could connect with the audience through his humor and his music.

Perhaps Masakela’s main goal in the concert was not only to entertain, but truly to build bridges and educate.  He ended the concert with the song “Kauleza,” a song I had actually learned from a recording made by his late ex-wife, Miriam Makeba.  “Kauleza” is a song that children would sing in the townships to warn their mothers that the police were coming to raid their homes.  Masakela told us the story of the song in an intimate way and had us sing with him the refrain of “Kauleza.”  In doing so, he succeeded in transforming conflict by including us (a mostly Dutch audience) in the struggle of black South Africans for justice and equality.  It was an impressive and powerful evening and I doubt anyone in the audience left unchanged.