“grazing in the grass” – hugh masekela (1968)

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Today is the spring equinox, colloquially known as the first day of spring, in this part of the world.  Though our calendar officially recognizes the seasonal change, it sure doesn’t feel like it in Chicago.  Currently, it is hovering around freezing and expected to snow later in the week.  To call this spring, especially after such long winters in Chicago, it can be seen as some cruel joke for some, but I don’t mind it.  Spring will come.

March can be such a strange month for weather.  One day, it can be bright, sunny, and warm enough to leave the jacket at home.  The next day, you’re bundled up in your scarf, hat, and mittens.  I was standing on the train platform this morning during my morning commute thinking about the lovely weather we had this weekend.

It was St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago which, depending on the area, can be a chaotic mess.  A friend of mine and I chose to head out of the city to see Asian orchid flower displays at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  There were lovely displays of orchids and all their bright, shimmering glory with warm welcoming hues of purple and yellow and red.  The flowers were displayed along the walls with a quiet water fixture in the middle.  It was incredibly calming and peaceful.

It was also very sunny out and warmer than had been during the week.  Last St. Patrick’s Day, it was miserably cold.  I remember standing in a courtyard at the base of Trump Tower looking at the river and waiting for it to turn green.  It wasn’t the coldest day of winter, but it was sure one of the coldest days.  SO much trouble to stand amongst drunk suburbanites and college students waiting to see a dirty river change colors.  As festive as I can be, I wanted no part of it this year.

Not only were the orchid displays gorgeous, it was also a really lovely day.  The sun was out and the temperature has risen enough to where I could comfortably walk around without my jacket.  And it kept getting nicer as the day progressed.  Later that day, I was sitting on a Metra platform, reading a book and my bare arms were exposed.  I marveled at how warm and inviting everything felt.  It only got better the next day with more sun and even warmer temperatures.  One of my purest joys in life is the first day I can comfortably wear short sleeves all day.  I got to experience that on Sunday and that is when I’m officially over winter.  Just a little taste of spring and I have to have it all.

Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet.  I was reminded just how unpredictably March in Chicago can be as I was shivering on the train platform.  I may not have actually been that cold.  It may have been an unconscious reaction considering the delightful weather I just experienced over the weekend.  Like an addict going cold turkey, I was shaking all over.  I need another hit of that spring awakening.

As I wait for Chicago to make up its mind and fully commit to spring, I ease the transition by listening to music that, for me, evokes fun in the sun.  Not quite the fun you find when its time to hit the beach, but the kind of fun where you can walk through parks without splashing around in dirty slush or slipping on the sidewalks.  I’m talking about the fun in the sun where you can go for a run, practice for your upcoming softball league, or maybe even grab a delicious treat from any of the fro-yo shops that are beginning to bloom.

Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass” is the perfect song for such an occasion.  “Grazing in the Grass” was composed by Philemon Hou and recorded by Masekela in 1968.  Most people are more familiar with the 1969 cover by the Friends of Distinction with the added lyrics, but Masekela’s original evokes a more calm and casual feeling.

The song was inspired by “Mr. Bull No. 5,” a novelty record that Masekela had heard in Zambia earlier.  In fact, “Grazing in the Grass” almost wasn’t released.  Masekela was working on his 1968 The Promise of a Future, but was short by three minutes.  At the record company’ suggestion, Masekela recorded the song along with Philemon Hou, also in the studio, who wrote a new melody.

Masekela’s signature trumpet sound on the track, just like spring, is gorgeous and not overbearing.  I just feel really good listening to it because it is simultaneously calming and motivating.  It makes me want to get out, move, and just enjoy the world around me.  This year, Masekela’s recordings was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Sadly, Masekela passed away earlier this year.  As one of South Africa’s best musicians, he championed anti-apartheid sentiments in his compositions.  Much of his work closely reflected his experiences growing up in segregated townships.  During the 1950s and 1960s in South Africa, Masekela faced extreme racism and exploitation under apartheid.  He managed to channel this into his revolutionary music that protested government-mandated violence and slavery.

While “Grazing in the Grass” may not have the same political furor as “Bring Him Back Home” or “Soweto Blues,” the song is powerful in its own right.  The power the song has comes from it evoking happiness and peace.  Amidst all the suffering and violence black South Africans faced from their oppressors, there was still a desire and yearning for joy.  Walking peacefully through the grass may not seem a revolutionary act to most people, but the drive to live a life where you can do what you please is one.

I understand that bracing one’s self against Chicago winters and institutionalized slavery are not the same things. However, my experience with this track is different than the context with which it was composed and recorded.  Back then, it is a yearning and declaration for one’s own sense of peace from oppression.  For me, right now, it means happiness on a smaller scale.  In the end, its all happiness and, baby, I can dig it.

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