Music is a craft: An interview with Hugh Masekela

October 07, 2016

Legendary jazz musician Hugh Masekela talked to us ahead of his performance at Superbalist is Rocking the Daisies. Chatting about the importance of mastering your craft in order to be the best possible musician and improviser you can be, he also stresses the importance of natural talent as a starting point.

How did you get your start in jazz and improvisation?
That’s not how it happens. When you become a musician you don’t think about improvisation or jazz. When you’re a kid and you love something you go into it. As a little child I never stopped singing until my mother decided “this kid should get piano lessons” and I started with classical music, but I was surrounded by records. Everybody had a gramophone. We didn’t think it was jazz, because we had all kinds of records; Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, big bands, all kinds of music. We went to church as kids, we played in the streets, there was no TV, so we had our own songs and our own dances, that’s all improvisation. Then there were like traditional migrant workers from the hostels and the mines and the weekends were like carnival, so there was music all over and it wasn’t written. So the idea of jazz came much later when it became a slogan just like hip hop or rnb became a slogan, but this thing doesn’t come in compartments.

Do you think improvisation is the key to keeping things interesting over time, both for you and the audience?
No it’s not that. You’re either playing and you move people or you don’t. There’s no method that if you improvise, you keep things interesting. If you can’t play, you can’t play! People will go away, whether you’re improvising or not. It might make it interesting for yourself. Playing music is a science. It’s a science and you have to have the ear and the talent. You can’t just go in with no method. If you’d like to run, but you can’t run, you can’t run! You have to be talented first of all and then you have to understand and learn the process, because there’s a lot of processes involved, because there are a lot of processes involved in learning. When I first did formal music it was classical and when I was already a supposedly established improvisor or jazz musician, I went to the conservatory for four years and studied classical music. There’s no method that gets you in there, I tell a lot of kids, if you don’t got it, you don’t got it. No amount of love for it is going to make you better. Don’t go into shit that you’re not talented in, but if you’re talented in something then you learn the skills and the craft. That’s how I see?

Do you sometimes surprise yourself with your improvisation?
No, I don’t surprise myself, I’m here to play music that I love. Surprise? Other people might say “hey, I didn’t know you could play that!” When you’re playing you’re concentrating on what you’re doing, you’re not entertaining yourself. Because there are people out there who are going to say you shouldn’t play because you got the chords wrong, you have to be educated. You have to be learned in your craft. Some people say “hey, it looked like you were having fun!” I’m working, can’t you see I’m sweating? It’s hard work and it’s a craft. The people that are good it are the people that work at it, whether it’s Dr. Dre or Herbie Hancock, but they work at their craft and that’s what makes them good.

How would you say your improvisation has changed over the years?
I don’t analyse what I do. I just learn, I learn the horn, because the horn is an inanimate subject so you have to conquer the mechanism, so you can play anything that comes to your mind with the instrument. And you strive for that all your life, to be able to play what comes to your mind and to do that you have to know the instrument. So it’s mastery and craftsmanship.

What would jazz be without improvisation?
For me, jazz is a state of mind of certain people. And I’m not an analyst. Jazz is not like a ‘what would hydrogen be without oxide?’. It’s not like that. It’s a gift of nature. It’s always been there.

Hugh Masekela will be performing at Superbalist x Rocking the Daisies 2016 on the Main Stage at 3:50 PM on Saturday.