To mark the 80th birthday of late South African jazz legend, Hugh Masekela in April this year, his family commissioned the building of a memorial pavilion in his honour. Yesterday, celebrated Ghanaian architect David Adjaye (OBE) who designed and constructed the memorial unveiled the project in the presence of family, fans and lovers of the music legend.
The edifice, Bra Hugh’s Shrine, is permanently installed close to the entrance to West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg, next to ANC faithful Ahmed Kathrada’s grave. It is a pavilion which has leaf shapes cut from its roof to emulate a tree, a gathering place in villages across Africa.
The distinctive design is also meant to celebrate the Pan-Africanist heritage which Masekela was a major advocate of through his collaborations with fellow African artists across the diaspora. The pavilion also borrows from African burial practices, which often include the building of distinct structures where loved ones can congregate and reflect on those lost.
The memorial is inscribed with a message from his family and houses various symbolic stones that represent the many places Masekela travelled within the continent while he was in exile. These include; Nigeria, Morocco, Egypt, Zimbabwe and Namibia.
The unveiling was attended by opulent guests, each of whom sported a special Hugh Masekela badge that was handed out. Some of the guests were poet laureate Mongane Wally Serote, songbird Abigail Kubeka, actress Thembi Mtshali, radio legend Shado Twala and former national assembly speaker Baleka Mbete.
The 52-year-old Adjaye, who has been at the forefront of designing some of the world’s most iconic structures, such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC told the guests Masekela inspired him to understand that he needed to look at the African continent to do his work and excel at it. He said that he has spent the past 11 years touring each and every country on the continent and taking photographs to understand the language of Africa’s architecture.
“This is a modern interpretation of African burial sites. If you look at the famous shrines in Kenya, like the Kusumba shrine, it’s a gathering hut with columns and you come in and the ancestors are buried just underneath your feet. You come to a place where there are mats laid and you sit there and that’s where you talk with the ancestors. It’s a royal tomb. But if you go to Rwanda the same tombs are used like these hut-like structures. In West Africa and in Nigeria the dead are often buried in the garden under trees. I wanted to find that spirit, where this kind of joy can happen, where you can come and talk with someone who did amazing things with his life and who is inspiring,” Adjaye added.
Neo Matsunyane, radio personality and TV host, read lines written by Masekela about his many travels around the continent. The attendees held prayers and there was an address by the family at the joyful event celebrating the spirit of Masekela and his impact on his fellow Africans.
The iconic African musician conveyed the stories of the African people through his melodies and skillfully curated lyrics. His music spoke of love and friendship, but it also dealt with the edgy political truths many African people faced. His music is celebrated all over the world, from Saskatchewan to Soweto, from the Cape Flats to Tokyo.
However, Bra Hugh, as he was popularly called by the people of his home country – South Africa, was more than just a musician, he was a revered Pan-Africanist, a creative industry activist and a cultural pioneer. He was committed to the realisation of a truly post-colonial African landscape.