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Masekala performing with Mandela slide in background. Several of the slides had Mandela in rugby garb.

Like coffee, jazz is not particularly my thing, but I’m quite pleased that the same friend who took me to Harrar Roastery convinced  me to go just a bit further down the street yesterday to Howard University and hear Hugh Masekela, South African jazz musician and activist perform ‘A Musical Tribute to Mandela.’  Masekala and a variety of performers capped off Howard University’s Mandela Day, which celebrated the 24th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990.

The musical event was co-sponsored by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the South African Ministry of Culture, the Embassy of South Africa, and the Howard University Republic of South Africa Project.  I had not realized that Howard and South Africa had such substantial ties, or that Howard had granted Mandela an honorary degree in 1994.  Howard Dodson of Howard’s Moorland-Springarn Research Center spoke of an ‘enduring relationship well into the future’ linking the school and the country.

South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool was on hand and gave very moving remarks, with a strong historical focus.  Thanking Howard for its vision, he spoke of the parallels between the anti-apartheid struggle in 1960s South Africa and the civil rights movement in the US.  He praised the rule of jazz music in Apartheid era South Africa, noting that it ‘was dissident , but they [the authorities] didn’t know what to do about it.’

The evening opened with student performances – the Howard University Jazztet and Afro Blue (including a version of this song by Esperanza Spalding).  South African Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile was on hand and read from two poems, including one that he penned after visiting Mali to accept an award for Mandela in 1989.  DC native and Howard graduate Akua Allrich performed several pan-African inspired songs which were very warmly received by the audience (though they were a bit too sophisticated for my taste).

Masekala (trumpet) and his buddy Larry Willis (piano) concluded the evening with about 5 songs, roughly split between tracks influenced by the South African singer Miriam Makeba and the American performer Louis Armstrong.  Masekala spoke very highly of Makeba, calling her a ‘patron saint of Africa’ and crediting her for introducing ‘Africa to the world and especially to America.’

Masekala left South Africa in 1960 and met Willis the same year at the Manhattan School of Music, where they were both students.  If I understand correctly, Masekala did not return to South Africa until 1990, when Mandela was released from prison and the ANC was unbanned.

Afro Blue

Afro Blue

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Kudos to Howard for a great free show.  I can’t believe the auditorium was only 2/3 full.