The section of Hugh Masekela’s epic 2004 biography, “Still Grazing”, which takes his wildin’ journey through music, sex, drugs, politics and life to 1970’s Monrovia, Liberia, is Section III, entitled “Africa.” Masekela’s return to the African continent found him at a bit of a crossroads in his journey. After leaving his native South Africa in the early ’60s, Masekela had married and divorced the great singer Miriam Makeba, released albums that flopped, studied music in New York City, met and be friended most of the great names of BeBop, Hard Bop & Soul Jazz, made love to scores of attractive women, and become both a role model and a patron of young South African musicians and students in exile in the United States. In 1968, Masekela’s recording of South African composer Philemon Hou’s song, “Grazing in the Grass” went to #1 on the pop charts, becoming an international smash. Masekela promptly got to enjoying his success, but he was not able to follow it up with a consistent stream of hits, as his personal life and partying began to dissipate his momentum. He had brief marriages that failed, consumed copious amounts of cognac, cocaine, weed and opium, and gave the world protest music after making them dance. It was the writer Quincy Troupe, who would go on to write the autobiography of one of Masekela’s heroes, Miles Davis, who suggested he go to West Africa to check out the post colonial growth of the continent. Masekela , ever the adventurer, a master at creating a life wherever he found himself, took him up on it, and it gave him a greater education in Africa than he’d ever had before.
Masekela was not exactly an expert on Africa at the time of this move, although he was one of the musicians most highly identified with Africa in the western mind. In his native South Africa he’d grown up a fan of Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, of swing and bebop, which would only intensify when he traveled to the United States as a student. He was much more familiar at the time with the culture of African Americans than he was that of his neighboring African countries, many of which were still submerged in colonial dominion during his youth. The apartied government also had a part to play in this, as it could not afford to have the ideas and the spirit of freedom thriving in other African nations to mingle and inspire that already growing movement at home. People of African descent were seperated from South Africans, classified as “foreign natives.” When Sidney Poitier and Canada Lee went to South Africa to film “Cry, the Beloved Country”, they were listed as servants of the white director and kept away from the white population. “Isolating ethnic South Africans from Africans born outside the country drove a cultural and pshychological wedge between them that still exists today in the form of the most despicable xenophobia imaginable”, Masekela writes.
Masekela’s ex wife, Miriam Makeba, facillitated his pilgrimage to Africa just as she did that of Nina Simone. It was Masekela’s intention to form a group when he arrived, taking advantage of the new music being created on the continent. His first stop was Guinea, where Makeba and her husband Kwame Toure, known during the Civil Rights Movement as Stokely Carmichael. Guinea was a French West African country, dominated by Muslims, which had a communist governmental structure under President Sekou Toure. Toure was a gracious host, even showing tolerance toward Masekela and other artists marijuana smoking. Yet, in short order, Masekela began to spend an equal amount of time in a Monrovia which featured “round the clock bars, a thriving international tourist trade, and American currency.” This Liberia also possessed a typical enticement for musicians :”some of the most beautiful women I’d seen since my return to Africa.”
Masekela was invited by President Tolbert to Liberia to raise money for his “Higher Heights” project. “Total Involvement for Higher Heights” was one of the trademark programs of President Tolbert, taking over after the long reign of President Tubman. The program involved a fundraiser called “Rally Time”. The Makeba/Masekela concert was to be a fundraiser for that program. Masekela said they turned the football stadium out, with him playing several encores of “Grazing in the Grass” that kept folks dancing. Miriam Makeba had to repreat her smash hit “Pata Pata” several times for the Liberian audience on that day.
Masekela was put up in a suite at the Ducor International Hotel, “on Monrovia’s highest hill, with a breathtaking view of the city and the Atlantic Ocean.” The Ducor Hotel and its fabulousness was one I’ve heard many stories about, both from my Liberian parents and even from people in the Bay Area who had visited pre war Liberia. Masekela also mentions several prominent Liberians of the time I grew up conscious of, everyone from Cecil Dennis, to “Chu Chu” Horton, who was a close friend of Masekela, to finance minister Steve Tolbert.
One of the things my mother was always proud of that rarely gets spoken is how much aid Liberia gave to black South Africans in the anti Apartied struggle. In this particular instance, Masekela was granted Liberian citizenship and a passport after his performances by President Tolbert. This was very crucial to Masekela at this time because after his defection from his country and his outspokenness against the oppresion occuring there, he was a man without a country to a large degree. Tolberts bestowal of Liberian citizenship on Masekela made it easier for him to travel and move about in the world.
Masekela quickly settled into the unique and bustling pre war Monrovia scene. He describes a city that never went to sleep, where people partied around the clock. He also had a large number of South African friends around him there, including the composer of his biggest hit, Philemon Hou. He also noted the conditions that would eventually lead to the calamnity Liberia would soon face, the deep social cleaveges between the descendants of the freed blacks from the United States and the indigenous African population. But at the same time he and other people observed this class division, it by no means stopped them from enjoying what he and other Africans of the time refered to as “Small America.”
The women he met there didn’t ask for taxi fare, like the Congolese women who’d come up disadvantaged under colonialism. The women he met had their own cars and jobs. Despite the class differences between the old “settler” families and the rest of the population, Masekela noticed that the country was informal and everybody knew the big shots, because rather than isolating themselves, they associated freely with everybody. Despite what he felt was oppresive, he met a society that seemed to have a sense of unity as well. He also made note of Liberian slangs such as referring to everybody as “my man!” or calling females “my child”, which makes me think of my dearly departed grandmother, and my dad, who’d always use “my man.”
While traveling to Nigeria, Congo, and several other African countries in search of band members, Masekela would split his time etween Monrovia and Conkaray, Guinea. While Guinea was a country of Islam and strict Marxism, Monrovia featured an African version of Westren freedom. Despite the difference in style however, he saw Toure and Tolbert as very similar, one capitalist, one communist, both autocratic.
Masekela was very influential in one of the greatest symbolic moments in the history of the African diaspora, the Muhammed Ali, George Foreman title bout known as the “Rumble in the Jungle”, in Kinsasha, Zaire, and Liberian money was key in making it happen. Stephen Tolbert, the brother of President Tolbert, and finance minister, a man reputed to be Liberia’s richest self made man through his involvement in the fishing industry, provided $2 million to make the music concert happen. That music concert was featured a few years ago in the film “Soul Power”, and featured luminaries such as James Brown, BB King, The Crusaders, and Miriam Makeba. Amazingly, the Rumble In the Jungle, where Muhammed Ali proved himself once and for all the “greatest of all time” by defeating the heavily favored Foreman, was made possible by Liberian money, or should I say, Liberian U.S dollars. Tolbert never recouped his investment due to the trickery of the promoters and also ended up dying in a plane crash.
The African section of Masekela’s book is full of other interesting incidents in Liberia, adventures with ChuChu Horton, stories of his South African friends studying in Liberia, fights in Krutown, and general rabble rousing and hell raising. One of the most poignant however, is when he brought his mother to Liberia. Masekela had not seen his mother since he left South Africa, and he brought her to the U.S and then to meet his family and see his house in Liberia on the beach. She had the time of her life, and she was even able to meet President Tolbert. This was very special to her, because her own government in South Africa treated her as a non human, but in a black African country, she was able to meet the President due to the importance of her son. “My mother was very touched and inspired by the fact she had dined with an African President, something that was utterly impossible in her own country.” And that is something that I believe Liberia provided for many within the African diaspora, from parts of Africa and the New World as well, an example and hope to one day enjoy the self governance Liberia had been struggling to maintain since her founding.
Masekela’s time in Liberia ended as many people’s, when Seargent Samuel Doe took power in 1980. His wife and child remained there for some time, but Masekela ran out of the country when he was instructed to go see Doe at the Executive Mansion, knowing he’d been friends with so many people in the old order.
“Still Grazing” was a very important book for me personally. My family left Liberia shortly before the coup. I saw pictures of Liberia in the ’60s and ’70s and still have a great deal of family that lives there. The names I encountered in the book, I was surprised to find I knew all of them as if I was there. It seems somehow my parents stories about Liberia had seeped deeper into me than I’d realized. They always spoke of Liberia in joyful terms, as if they’d had the times of their lives living there and would never find such joy anywhere else. But for me, I’d never quite read a history of the particular times they’d lived in, especially that time period of the 1970s that led up to the war. “Grazing in the Grass” is an important book for Liberians to read, both young and old. It’s one thing to have a Liberian testify to how things used to be in the country, but it’s a whole other thing for a person who was a guest and naturalized citizen to speak to it. Though Liberia had its social and economic problems as governments and people do, it also had and has something very special. “Still Grazing” was the first book that captured the history of 1970s Liberia for me in a personal style and it’s as valuable for that as it is for its portraits of South Africa, the 1960s music scene and Hugh Masekela’s incredible life.