Serendipitous Six

cc photo by flickr user .christoph.G.

cc photo by flickr user .christoph.G.

My first time hearing Hugh Masekela, the world-famous South African trumpet player and composer, was when I bought a magazine about African music that came with a sampler CD back in 2004 or 2005. I was about 17 and I had already been dabbling in world music for a number of years; I’d eat up any Putumayo tapes or CDs I could get my grubby fingers on. (There was an old Putumayo tape I listened to so many times, I think it eventually broke). I was also fascinated by West African drums like the djembe. I’d barely read the magazine that came with the sampler CD, but, man, I was instantly hooked to a number of the tracks on that CD. There was, among others, “Njalo” by Soweto Gospel Choir (from South Africa), “Hello My Baby” by Ladysmith Black Mambazo (also from South Africa), “Koni” by Baaba Maal (from Senegal)—and “District Six” by Hugh Masekela (also from South Africa). In those idyllic days of youth, these tracks supplied the perfect background music for springtime. “District Six” perfectly captures the atmosphere of those laid-back sunny weekends, the afternoon calm that would settle over the neighborhood, the endless skies outside the train window as I’d head downtown, the joy of hanging out with friends or of walking through the woods in solitude, the cool air of shade, dinner with my family as dusk’s stillness darkened the skies and lit up our house, early morning walks with my dog when my parents were away, and so on. I don’t know why, but “District Six” has stuck with me all these years. There’s just something about it that resonates deeply with me, like I’ve encountered a long lost friend.

I think perhaps because of my upbringing, I’ve been strongly attracted to music from other regions of the world. My neighborhood is a bastion of liberal social values, welcoming gays, lesbians, jews, blacks, and other minorities and strongly integrating them into the community. Even though as a kid, I’d never given any of this any thought, when I grew up and started making my way in the world, it was obvious the mark my community had made on me. My community’s emphasis on multiculturalism had certainly kindled my interest in what lay beyond my country’s borders, and, as a consequence, the boundary of my worldview always seemed to be more distant than that of my friends who grew up elsewhere. “District Six,” I think, along with my other favorite tracks from that sampler disc listed above, marks a liminal stage in my life when I began to turn my gaze to world music and gradually became completely dissociated from mainstream music. It was through that sampler disc that I began to explore more African music (This was before Youtube, and most of the music I wanted wasn’t available through Napster or Limewire, so I had to either borrow CDs from the library or just buy them outright): I fell in love with the music of Miriam Makeba, who happened to have been married to Masekela for a couple years, through her song titled “The Click Song”; I was turned on to Paul Simon’s album “Graceland”—the South African tour of which featured Masekela—by a mutual appreciation of Ladysmith Black Mambazo with a friend; “Graceland” led me to the Boyoyo Boys (a fantastic South African group); Baaba Maal led me to Youssou N’Dour (from Senegal), who’s arguably the most famous living singer in Africa (according to Rolling Stone). As my interest in African music, and world music in general, grew and grew, I eventually found myself doing an MPhil in ethnomusicology (the study of music through ethnography) at Chinese University here in Hong Kong. Serendipity is a funny thing, isn’t it?

P.S. I urge you, dear reader, to check out the tracks and groups I’ve mentioned above. They’re awesome. And who knows? Maybe one of them will turn you on to other artists you would never have thought of listening to. All of the songs listed above, except “Njalo” by Soweto Gospel Choir, can be found on Youtube. However, the track “District Six” can only be found in a video of the full album of “Revival” by Hugh Masekela; “District Six” starts 18:13 in.



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