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Trumpeter Hugh Masekela refuses to be limited by musical labels. 

Defying Categories

Hugh Masekela
The Big Gig
Brown's Island
Saturday, July 17
8 p.m.
Free
643-2826

If Hugh Masekela's joyous, soulful, alternately sophisticated and playful music doesn't fit any conventional jazz/pop/rap stereotypes, that's fine with him.

"I don't like categorization," says Masekela, who brings his all-star touring band to Richmond on July 17 for a free show for the Big Gig on Brown's Island. "It is parallel to human prejudices. The media and critics need [categories] to fit things in an order, but they are not required by the music. ... It takes so long for a musician to get any kind of recognition. Then, when they do, they find they are then limited by category."

Masekela knows first-hand of what he speaks. He garnered his initial fame playing hard bop inspired by Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers then took some critical heat for later recordings that strayed from the straight-ahead jazz path. But Masekela has been anything but limited in his 40-year career. The South African trumpeter has played with rhythm and blues bands, opened for the Supremes, headlined the JVC Jazz Festival and played with African bands.

If Masekela follows anyone, it is the example set by his hero and mentor, Louis Armstrong.

"He did not have a great voice, but no one could sing better, Masekela recalls fondly. "And anybody could sing along with his playing. He never lost that childlike quality, innocence, that sense of wonder. Louis never talked about 'jazz.' Instead, he talked about happiness, about the importance of living a good life."

Armstrong's inspiration goes back to the beginning of Masekela's career, when the great trumpeter sent the struggling young musician one of his own instruments. Masekela has used his international fame with similar generosity — giving a new generation of talented performers the opportunity to perform on the world stage. "I have been working with a group of South African musicians for the past two to three years, he says. "They are unknown in America, but they are all great players."

After years of exile, Masekela returned to his country three years ago to play a leading role in its post-apartheid cultural renaissance. Since then he has played with the leading musicians of his homeland's vital scene, and recorded the multi-platinum "Black to the Future," a seamless combination of unison horns, silky background harmonies, growling vocals, skittering guitar and propulsive rhythms.

About his native land, which has all but disappeared from the headlines after the collapse of apartheid, Masekela is philosophical and eloquent.

"Right now we are in the same stage as African Americans of the 1920s, '30s or '40s. We have been isolated for a very long time. Someday the world will stop looking at us as a group of stone-throwing, protest song singing people, and the gift of our forefathers will be recognized."

Masekela and his band will deliver that gift to Richmond on July 17. After four decades of being the preeminent living symbol of his country's creative genius, he has no interest in being a revered elder. "People push us to mature, to force us into old age," he says. "Why
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