How do you begin to piece together the story of an internationally-renowned musician and cultural icon like Hugh Masekela? In the wake of his recent passing, tributes and memories have poured in from around the globe in an attempt to make sense of the impact that the jazz musician made on the world. Certainly, Masekela was a man of many stories and, according to Nicole van Heerden and Brett Rubin, working with him meant sharing in many of these stories.
Having worked with Masekela for nearly six years, Van Heerden and Rubin, his stylist and photographer respectively, came to know the late trumpeter intimately. The two first began working with him in 2012, after Rubin approached Masekela’s manager with the idea for a portrait shoot.
‘It almost felt like an audition,’ explains Rubin. ‘We prepped extensively, and it actually ended up being a far more organic process and so much fun.’
It went so well, in fact, that many of the images from that shoot were used in Masekela’s 2012 album Playing at Work. It was also this first bit of work with him that Van Heerden and Rubin began to realise that working with Masekela allowed access to a wealth of stories from his life in various cities surrounded by friends who, like Masekela himself, would later become musical icons.
During one of their first shoots, Rubin and Van Heerden recall taking him to a location with a large-scale sculptural wall by South African artist Cecil Skotnes.
‘Who is this artist?’ asked Masekela, ever curious.
‘That’s Cecil Skotnes,’ they replied.
To which Masekela responded that he knew of Cecil Skotnes – ‘he used to drive into the township, during apartheid, to get sculpture lessons from my father.’
By nature, Masekela was a person who drew people towards him, and made a habit of getting to know all of them, well. He was fiercely Pan-Africanist and believed strongly in the power of Africa’s shared cultural and artistic heritage. Being in exile from the 1960s meant not being able to integrate himself in South Africa’s arts and culture, and served as a difficult period for him. But it was also a time when he met countless influential individuals.
Van Heerden and Rubin have heard tales of Masekela’s late nights in New York with Jimi Hendrix, borrowing books from Miles Davis, and spending time in the 1970s with Fela Kuti in Lagos and Accra.
Throughout his travels, Masekela amassed a striking collection of clothing – shirts, cashmere coats, hats, and bespoke fabrics – much of which have featured in their shoots.
‘I quickly learned that Hugh loved to look good, and he did it so easily, too,’ says Van Heerden. ‘Because of his personality, styling him was such a natural process and because he loved collecting original pieces, I got a lot of clothing made for him for the shoots by local designers.’
Later in his life, Masekela began to practice Tai Chi, and Van Heerden and Rubin recall seeing him backstage, moments before his lifetime achievement award performance at OppiKoppi, silently engaging in his routine as a roaring and ecstatic crowd waited for him to take the stage.
But he was a man of many surprises, say the two. For Rubin, it was his casual way of imparting stories and knowledge in conversation that never ceased to amaze him – ‘those countless warm stories he’d gift to us over the years.’ That and the fact that Masekela refused to shake hands with anyone and insisted, instead, on hugging every person he met. For Van Heerden, it’s the way Masekela managed to be incredibly hardworking and professional, but possessed a young-spirited playfulness during shoots.
‘He really set the tone of the shoots in that way. One moment we’d all be laughing and joking about, and the next we’d be doing incredible work; it just flowed seamlessly.’
A series of photos featuring Masekela, flugelhorn in hand and seated in a backwards chair, showcase this perfectly. In some of the images he is smiling and laughing, while in another, he is deeply pensive.
‘That pensive photo was from a great shoot for his final album No Borders,’ recalls Rubin. ‘Hugh was making us all laugh from the beginning of the shoot and then Van Heerden and the rest of the team left the room to go and get some coffees, so it was just him and I there. I started asking him about what it was like living in New York in the 1960s and he started telling me all these magical stories, and in-between it all, he would stare off and think back to those times.’
The story of Masekela is a tapestry of countless people, places, songs, and experiences spread out across the world, in spite of its borders and barriers. In remembering Masekela, we have the work of people like Rubin and Van Heerden to help us along, and we have his many tales to think back on.
As time passes, more tales will probably be told, but for now, here’s another great one to hold on to: During the No Borders album shoot on a closed set at The Cosmopolitan – an old, but recently revamped Maboneng building – Masekela began to play his flugelhorn. Lilted, crooning notes rose up into the ceiling and surrounds, christening the quiet, historic building, days before it’s re-opening to the public. Afterwards, while walking with Van Heerden and Rubin to a nearby steakhouse for lunch, Masekela excitedly exclaimed: ‘Man, it’s so good to walk around downtown like this, I feel like I could be in Amsterdam or Copenhagen, but I’m right here in Johannesburg.’