Hugh Masekela: Welcome to South Africa


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Hugh Masekela: Welcome to South Africa

Hugh Masekela reflects on his career in performance and interview, from its 50s beginnings through the apartheid years, exile and stardom in America, and return to South Africa.


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Welcome to our concert.

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The sound of migration, of South Africa,

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dedicated to the people of South Africa

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who have been able to, after 300 years, collect together

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such a great anthology of songs.

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We're playing tonight with the London Symphony Orchestra,

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a few South African singers, and the community choir of the LSO.

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Welcome to South Africa.

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APPLAUSE AND CHEERS

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I grew up in the...in Africa's largest coal-mining town, Witbank.

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Music absorbed me from when I was a little child.

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When I was two years old I lived for the gramophone -

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two, three years old, I used to wait,

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who's going to get up first so they can hold it for me?

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Cos I wasn't strong enough to hold it and wind it up.

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By the time I was 13 I went to boarding school

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and I saw a movie about a trumpet player called Young Man With A Horn.

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I'd already met Father Harrison cos he was chaplain of my school.

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He asked me one day, "What do you really want to do in life?"

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I sort of was in trouble a lot with the authorities.

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I said, "If I could get a trumpet, Father, just a trumpet, I wouldn't bother anybody any more."

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And he got me a trumpet and a trumpet teacher.

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I'd been trying for three years to get Harrison to get me a scholarship,

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so I could come and study music here, and he finally got Johnny Dankworth,

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who had been deported from South Africa for hanging out too much with the native people,

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and they convinced the Guildhall to write me a letter of acceptance,

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which was the only thing that I was lacking.

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I got it shortly after the Sharpeville Massacre.

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And I left immediately, because by then

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I was also, like, very politically involved in the resistance movement

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and underground work.

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And...yeah, I left in a hurry.

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APPLAUSE AND CHEERS

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I had worked very hard so that by the time I got to New York,

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I could already really play, you know?

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I wanted really to, if nothing else, play in Blakey's Jazz Messengers.

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But they refused to give me a gig.

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Everybody said "Why don't you do your own thing? You come from Africa,"

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blah, blah, blah.

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So finally I put together a trio and from there, I was gone.

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We were really, like, into protest music and the anti-Vietnam War crusade was really on,

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and the Civil Rights thing was on, so it was a great time for anarchy.

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I was already very heavily involved in rubbishing the apartheid government,

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and my friends were people like Belafonte and Miriam Makeba

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and Dizzy and... It was all the anti-apartheid people.

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And I was unknown, so Belafonte especially sat me down and said,

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"Man, with your mouth you're going back there...

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"They don't even know who you are, nobody knows who you are.

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"They're going to be waiting for you at the airport

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"and you're going straight to jail.

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"They can do anything with you,

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"nobody will know what happened to you.

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"But if you stay here and you try and make a name for yourself,

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"and you talk about your county,

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"if you have a name, people will listen,

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"and you'll be able to get the message across.

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"You'll be of more use to your people than going back to them."

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And...it made sense, so I stayed.

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I stayed 26 years longer than I had planned.

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MUSIC: "Stimela"

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PERCUSSION IMITATES TRAIN

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There's a train.

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APPLAUSE AND CHEERS

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It comes from Malawi,

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Namibia.

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There's a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe.

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There's a train that comes from Angola

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and Mozambique.

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From Lesotho, from Botswana,

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from Swaziland.

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From all the hinterlands of Southern and Central Africa.

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This train carries young and old African men

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who are conscripted to come and work on contract

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in the gold and mineral mines of Johannesburg

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and its surrounding provinces and metropoli.

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16 hours or more a day,

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for almost no pay.

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Deep!

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Deep, deep, deep, deep, deep,

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deep, deep down in the belly of the earth.

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When they are digging and drilling

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for that shiny, mighty evasive stone.

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When they dish that mish-mash-mush food

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into their iron plates with an iron shovel.

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When they sit in their stinky,

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filthy, funky, flea-ridden barracks and hostels,

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and they think about their loved ones they may never see again

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because they might already have been forcibly removed

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from where they last left them.

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Or wantonly murdered in the dead of night

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by roving and marauding gangs of no particular origin.

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So we are told.

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They think about their lands and their herds

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that were taken away from them with the gun and the cannon,

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with the collaborator, the dog, the tear gas and the poison.

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With the bomb and the Gatling.

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And when they hear that choo-choo train,

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a-smoking and a-chugging and a-pumping and a-climbing

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and a-struggling and a-pumping and a-smoking,

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a-puffing and a-tooting and a-singing and a-crying

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and a-moaning and a-wailing and a-screeching and a-screaming -

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Aah! AAAAAAH!

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They always curse.

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And they curse the coal train.

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The coal train that brought them to Johannesburg.

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Stimela.

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APPLAUSE

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APPLAUSE AND CHEERS

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I got ahead during the times of free love,

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and I was a flower child, and my friends were people like David Crosby

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and...the Jefferson Airplane people,

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the Grateful Dead,

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Big Brother and the Holding Company.

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I played Monterey Park, you know.

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It was everybody -

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Jimi Hendrix was, you know, hanging out there.

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And we were not wild, but we didn't sleep much.

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The biggest record I ever had was Grazing In The Grass,

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a typical South African dance tune.

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And Russ Regan was the head of A&R at UNI.

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He came to listen to, I think it was my fifth album,

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he came and said, "I like that album, but you need another sound."

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The saxophone player had been listening to these tapes that

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I had just brought back from Zambia.

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He said, "Why don't we try that song? Because it's simple."

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It's got a simple melody,

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It's got a bass line with four notes, boom boom, boom boom.

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The drum just goes bam, ch-ch, bam, ch-ch.

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And the piano goes... HE SINGS THE MELODY

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And the guitar goes... HE SINGS THE MELODY

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So we did it in half an hour,

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and by the time Russ Regan came, it was mixed,

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it just took us a short time.

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Maybe we spent two hours on it.

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And he came in and we played it for him and he said, "This is a smash."

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APPLAUSE

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This is an old, beautiful song from Brazil.

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It's called The Joke Of Life. Brinca de Vivre.

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It was written by Jon Lucien at a time when he thought

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that injustice was the biggest joke of life.

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Brinca de Vivre.

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APPLAUSE

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I spent 1980 to 1985 living in Botswana.

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While here, we started the Botswana International School of Music,

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and I'd signed with Jive Records and had a mobile studio,

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in Gaborone.

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So, I came back and I lived in England for five years, on and off.

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On the stage, I toured with Paul Simon and I had Sarafina.

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We were doing Sarafina, it was on Broadway, I think, for two years

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when I got the call that Mandela was going to...

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then Sisulu and Kathrada and all those people

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were going to be let out of jail and then soon we'll be able to go home.

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I didn't believe it, but when I...

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When I finally spoke to Miriam Makeba and my sister Barbara,

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at the time, was Mandela's chief of staff,

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they put him on the phone and he said, "Hugh, you must come home.

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"It's been long enough now."

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And the next week I was on the plane.

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APPLAUSE

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I think the greatest thing for me of getting back to South Africa

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was to be able to get back with the people,

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especially the rural, ethnic, indigenous people.

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And learn those things

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about my heritage that I didn't know.

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Now, I'm so obsessed with, like, all that kind of revival,

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not only for myself, because, like,

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colonialism and apartheid dealt so much damage,

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not only in South Africa,

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but all the neighbouring countries and, I guess,

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to a great extent, the whole continent itself.

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It's very important that, I think, the people of Africa

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get back into their heritage, because I think there lies

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the remedy for xenophobia.

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I wasn't naive, because I'd lived in Botswana,

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I knew what the economics of Africa was.

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Indeed, I'd lived in the Congo, I'd lived in Nigeria,

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I'd lived in Ghana, I'd lived in Guinea,

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I'd lived in Liberia and Senegal.

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So I knew the terrain.

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So when I went back it was, of course, personally,

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to be able to, like, reimmerse myself

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in the culture and the society,

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but mostly to see what I could bring,

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because I had sourced so much from Africa

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and I need to pay it back.

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And the only way to pay it back, I think, is by making the people see

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how wonderful they are and how excellent they are

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and get them to enjoy their heritage again.

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APPLAUSE

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The most unfair judgement of South Africa is the fact that

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people expect us to be that which they thought we were going to be -

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The Miracle Nation.

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But we come from a very, very untidy

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and raggedy and very violent past.

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And also...a very corrupt one.

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And we've only been free 15 years.

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I say to people - listen, England has been enjoying freedom

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maybe for over, like, ten centuries.

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France, you know, maybe just as long,

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if not longer, and, like, Germany and all those places.

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And America has been free, maybe, almost 300 years.

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But they all have problems.

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They still have problems,

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so maybe if you come back to me 800 years from now,

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I'll be able to say, "Well, we're making some headway."

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MUSIC: South African National Anthem - "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika"

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APPLAUSE AND CHEERING

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South African musician Hugh Masekela celebrates his 70th birthday and reflects on his career in performance and interview, from first picking up a trumpet in the 50s through the apartheid years, exile and stardom in America, his return to South Africa on Nelson Mandela's release, and concluding with his vision of the future for his country.

The programme also features performances from his 70th birthday concert at the Barbican in London in December 2009, where he was joined by the London Symphony Orchestra, their Community Choir and guest South African singers.