In 1968, Hugh Masekela experienced what some would consider a career apex. The South African trumpet and flugelhorn player came to the US in 1961 to study at the Manhattan School of Music. Seven years later, his single "Grazing in the Grass," which eventually sold four million copies, hit number one in the charts. But he wasn't completely thrilled.
"Being an anti-establishment person, that didn't really intrigue me that much," he says. "I thought [the label execs] were fucking squares and exploitative."
Masekela was only moved by one thing: honest, soulful music. His passion took him around the world, propelling into business as one of the founders of the influential independent label, Chisa. Masekela lived like a rock star–he received a trumpet in the mail from Louis Armstrong when he was 17, Miles Davis gave him career advice when he was gigging in New York in the '60s, and he got along "like a brother" with Afro-beat legend Fela Kuti–but none of it really got to his head. "Musicians are ordinary people," says Masekela. "They eat, they play, they shit."
What moved this firebrand was music, especially the under-appreciated rhythms of Africa, and they led him to start Chisa (Swahili for "hot" or "burning") in 1966. As the powerful new compilation of never-before-heard gems, The Chisa Years 1965-1975 (Rare and Unreleased) (BBE), demonstrates, this artist-run label pushed passionate new music forward. Years before world music became a bland marketing term, Masekela and Chisa were fusing genres, capturing the raw sound of funk, Afro-beat, jazz, and South African rhythms. "I love all kinds of music," he says. "I've loved it since I was a child, and children don't categorize. I still don't categorize."
Born in 1939 in Witbank, South Africa, Masekela grew up surrounded by records. Absorbing everything from local bands to Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, he became so obsessed with vinyl that his parents gave him piano lessons at age six to drag him away from the record player. But it was a movie he saw at age 13, Young Man With a Horn (based on the life of jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke) that entranced him.
"In the movie, Kirk Douglas [who played the Beiderbecke character] stood in front of the band, had the most beautiful threads, took all the solos, didn't take shit from anybody, and got the girl," Masekela remembers. "It seemed like the instrument to play."
Soon, the young Masekela was begging for a horn. Local anti-apartheid Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, who helped the trumpeter get into his first band and later asked Louis Armstrong to send him a certain gift, granted his request in 1954. Masekela started jamming, but as the oppressive political climate of apartheid started to limit opportunities–"South Africa was in leg irons," he recounts–he began looking elsewhere for musical opportunities. Singer Miriam Makeba, a childhood friend whom he would marry later in life, had already made a name for herself overseas. She helped convince him to come study in New York.
Masekela arrived in 1961, and Makeba introduced him to her musical inner circle, including Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz heavyweights. But his meeting with classmate Stewart Levine was just as profound. A fellow music obsessive, Levine (now a world-famous producer) became Masekela's friend and roommate. They soaked up live music in New York, clubbing until the early morning and returning to their apartment to dance to Masekela's mbaqanga records, a style that originated in South African townships.
By late 1966, Levine and Masekela, who had then relocated to Los Angeles, formed Chisa, and things started to move quickly. They inked a distribution deal with Uni Records (now Universal) in 1967, signed the Jazz Crusaders, and soon "Grazing in the Grass" reached hit status. But Uni wasn't interested in anything past the hit record, so Chisa split and many records remained unreleased. But Masekela, who was now playing sold-out gigs around the US and opening for Motown acts on the road, started talking with Berry Gordy, Motown Records' president. Soon, the two labels were working hand in hand.
But it wasn't enough to keep Chisa afloat. Motown was down with marketing the label, but it didn't perform well enough and folded in 1975. Like Masekela, the label was all about music, yet it wasn't hard to understand why songs about corruption and racism made it onto many Chisa records.
"I think that any artist that comes from an oppressed community and doesn't sing or talk about it needs his head examined," he said. "Now, I wasn't making music because of oppression; I was making music because I loved it and it's all I've ever done. The fact that I came from a country with oppressed people was just a coincidence. Had I been a garbage man, I would have been just as militant," he exclaims.
While Chisa came to a premature close, its spirit lives on. Masekela, who still records, didn't stop following his convictions when the label folded. He recorded and toured extensively in the '70s and '80s, appearing with Paul Simon during the Graceland tour and writing "Bring Him Back Home," an anthem for then-imprisoned leader Nelson Mandela, in 1985.
More importantly, he remained in the business of making records and supporting artists, especially after returning to South Africa in 1990. He now runs Chissa, a label similarly dedicated to DIY principles, and performs with many young South African artists. Decades after starting a label that predicted the boom in world music, Masekela is still supporting African music. Until there are more Africans running record labels, it's a role he won't stop playing.
"I think the local music industry needs to becomes an African-owned industry, where we have our own distribution and retail," he notes. "So far, it's been a market that's been exploited, like minerals and cheap labor were exploited on this continent. What's important is to build an African industry that's independent. The thing is for Africans to be successful at home like Americans are successful at home."