For the maestros who strummed along with the father of South African jazz, Hugh Masekela, nothing can fill the gap his death leaves.
Guitarist Cameron Ward, bassist Fana Zulu and drummer Leeroy Sauls have played alongside Masekela for the past nine years and, after his death yesterday at 78, shared their feelings on a music legend and patriot who they looked up to as a father figure.
Ward was scheduled to meet Masekela last week – but that did not happen.
“Exactly last week, he tried calling me. There were three calls. And whenever I picked up the phone he would whisper because he obviously couldn’t talk at that time,” he recalled.
Masekela therefore sent his thoughts to Ward, who will never forget his message.
“He told me to stay true to myself and that I must remember he loves me; I must have a good show, never forget where I come from and that he was very proud. “This is a very difficult moment for me. He was a father figure to me,” an emotional Ward said.
“Sometimes we cry, but it’s life. It will only probably sink in at the memorial. But I understand we had to let him go …” Ward recollected being called to join Masekela’s band at a very young age.
“I couldn’t believe Bra Hugh wanted me as his guitar player.”
He was called to rehearse in Johannesburg, only to find Masekela not there. “I was busy playing and he wasn’t there.
He arrived an hour later.
But little did I know he was sitting outside listening to me. And when he came in, I was shocked. He gave me a hug and called me sonny.” That name stuck with Ward in all the days he knew Masekela.
“He said: ‘Hey sonny! You played beautifully. You are part of the band now. Thank you for taking time out to come to Johannesburg. I really appreciate it a lot, so let’s have fun!’ “The industry has lost an icon. We are not just speaking about a normal musician. And he didn’t like it when people called him a legend. He didn’t see himself as one – but he is.”
Masekela’s guidance led to Ward staying away from drugs and alcohol.
“He was always on my case. He would call at least once a week just to check up on me. If he didn’t call he would send a message saying: ‘Hey sonny, how you doing?’
The quartet last played together on Mandela Day in Cape Town last year. By then, Masekela was already battling with cancer.
“We normally have a dancing routine and his management said ‘listen, please don’t do the dance, he won’t be able to’. “And then he said: ‘Hey sonny, let’s do that dance.’ And I said how? And he said ‘no, let’s dance!’ It was one of the greatest concerts. And that is how I will forever remember Bra Hugh.”
Sauls said Masekela had always reminded him, Zulu and Ward to be proud of their heritage.
“It’s been nine years that we played together. I can happily say he was a very transparent old man who always gave us a chance and enlightened us about life. “He would educate us about our heritage as coloured guys and always told us to hold onto it, because we come from Khoisan origins. “He always told us to be proud and be true to ourselves.”
The last time they met was in November, during the Hugh Masekela Heritage Festival. “My final encounter was very emotional because he looked very ill. It was just a down cycle since the cancer returned. It hit him very hard,” said Sauls.
“Since last year, we all just communicated on our WhatsApp group.
“We tried seeing him again but he was in and out of hospital.” Sauls will always remember Masekela as a man of “integrity who preserves heritage”.
“He would want to be remembered for that,” said Sauls. “He stood for what was right.”