You could say that South African trumpet virtuoso Hugh Masekela has been around. He’s not exactly a household name in the United States, but it’s nearly impossible to escape his influence.
In the late ’50s, after performing and recording some of the first bebop in South Africa, Masekela came to the United States with help from Harry Belafonte and began performing and recording with American musicians, including Herb Alpert (famous for founding the Tijuana Brass and A&M Records). Masekela’s breezy 1968 hit “Grazin’ in the Grass” sold millions of copies here and has been covered by Stevie Wonder, sampled by Sugar Ray and used in soundtracks for movies from “Anchorman” to “Jackie Brown.” Masekela has played on songs by the Byrds and Bob Marley, has toured through Africa with Fela Kuti and Paul Simon (on Simon’s original and 25th-anniversary “Graceland” tours), and, as recently as 2011, has shared a stage with U2, performing “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” in front of a crowd of about 80,000.
One of his most productive musical partnerships was in the ’70s, with the Ghanain afrobeat band Hedzoleh Soundz. He met the group while touring with Kuti, and of the albums they recorded together, “Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz,” still stands as a masterpiece of afro-jazz fusion. (Although the album is inexplicably out of print, it’s available on iTunes.)
“Music is not like running track — you don’t run alone, you run with other people,” says Masekela, whose genre-hopping collaborations came about naturally. “I was born into music, not into a category. It’s only because of marketing and sales that we were told what is ‘urban’ or ‘adult contemporary’ or ‘garage.’ All of it is music. It’s really a pity that there are kids who say, ‘I’m only into hip-hop.’ ”
Masekela, 74, has been running for a long time and has probably seen more of America than most of its residents. “I could be a tour guide in the states. . . . I haven’t played in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, but I’ve played pretty much everywhere else,” he says.
The fluid nature of Masekela’s constant travel and collaboration is important to him not just artistically, but also philosophically. “I’m uneasy about borders and frontiers and nationalism and the wars come from that kind of emotional sentimentality,” he says. “After all, everybody’s a f-----g nomad.”
Masekela left South Africa during a tumultuous time in that country’s history, and his 1987 song “Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)” became an anthem for the political movement to free Mandela. Yet he has never considered himself an activist. “I was never politically active, I just happened to come from a country where people were oppressed,” Masekela says. “I grew up in rallies and shootings and massacres and boycotts.”
His social concerns more recently have turned toward the restoration and preservation of African heritage, which has included beginning work on an institute to showcase African culture and history. “Future African generations are really not being exposed to their past or their heritage,” Masekela says. “[Other societies] don’t really know us, and we don’t really know ourselves. . . . We’ve been desecrated to the point where we’re convinced our heritage is primitive and backwater and heathen and savage. If things continue this way, our grandchildren will say, ‘The rumor is we used to be Africans long ago.’ ”
The difference between cherishing history and deriding it couldn’t be more stark, in Masekela’s view. “I watched the English queen’s grandson get married,” he says, “and it was like English pageantry from thousands of years ago. No one said that [stuff] is backwater.”
Masekela is steeped in decades of his own rich personal history, with many deep and diverse experiences under his belt. But he doesn’t look back for inspiration. “I take my horn and practice everyday, I write every day,” he says. “What has happened has happened, and what is happening now, I’m working on.”
Appearing Friday at 8 p.m. at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW. 202-785-9727. www.lisner.org. $30-$45.