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Sal Masekela's 'Alekesam'

6/13/2012

Last summer, longtime X Games host Sal Masekela hunkered down in a recording studio. The son of jazz great Hugh Masekela, Sal has music in his blood, but he had never cut a record before and he didn't want the celebrity of his name to alter its purity. So he reversed his last name, attached it to the new album and "Alekesam" was born.

Friend and creative partner Jason Bergh pointed a camera at Masekela in the studio and later gathered interviews from his friends and family. The result is a 35-minute documentary -- also entitled "Alekesam" -- about his relationship with his father, a man whose music helped fuel the drive to abolish apartheid in South Africa. The result is a full-bodied portrait of a man that makes it clear that when we watch Masekela host the X Games, we really are seeing only a small part of the picture.

ESPN.com: Why did you wait to attach your name to the "Alekesam" music?
Sal Masekela:
When I made the record, I honestly didn't know what I was getting into and how deep we were really going to go. We didn't have an agenda, like, "Let's make a record to expand my audience." I just went into the studio to get this thing out of me that had been tormenting my soul for the better part of my existence.

It ended up being more than I bargained for. The music actually had some weight to it. So I said we can do this one of two ways: I can tell everybody I made a record -- the way our society is I don't think people would have given it a second chance, like a real hard look. I think most people would have just scoffed at it. And I think from a media standpoint, they would have been just like, "Oh, another celebrity tries his hand at something that he shouldn't."

So I said, why not do something different and let the music stand on its own? It was good way to test the music, to allow the music to get in and define its own place. We got one of the songs into an episode of "Entourage," which was huge in terms of legitimacy.

It will be interesting to see what the people who know me as the Sal Masekela from the X Games think. I'm curious to see if they'll give it chance.

What motivated you to write this music?
I've been spending the last 20 years celebrating everybody's abilities to visualize, create and accomplish things, and my job has been to put it into context and help the rest of the world appreciate what's happening. And it's something I really enjoy doing. But at the same time, I found myself thinking, "You have something to give, something in you that you've been ignoring, and at some point you're going to have to deal with it, otherwise it's going to make you crazy." And it had been. I had been feeling a lack of a sense of personal accomplishment, as far as being able to create something of record.

As a kid growing up, before action sports came into my life, my whole life was spent in music with my dad -- and quietly behind the scenes making music with my cousin and singing on his record. I never told anybody about it. After I went to South Africa with my dad for the World Cup [in 2010], I came home and made a pact with myself. ... My experience there was a real [wake-up call] about doing something for myself and sharing it.

If this music had been tormenting you, why did it take you so long to make this record?
Well, I never planned to be a sports commentator. That was something that happened by default, by being a part of the action sports industry at its core in the mid-1990s, when we did all our events endemically. We all just took turns on the mike and I just happened to have a lot of fun doing it. I got a reputation ... as the guy who put a little bit of something else into announcing a demo or a contest, and people just started calling me up and hiring me.

And as far as X Games goes, I never thought that it was going to be a career. It wasn't until about 2003 or 2004 that I really started to take it seriously.

You would think all that would be enough to satisfy me. But as much as a love doing the X Games, it's really only, like, five weeks out of the year, maybe. And I tried doing something else with "The Daily 10" [E!'s now-defunct entertainment news show]. Toward the end of that, I felt that my soul was dying inside because I was just talking about celebrity bulls--- every day.

When that was over and I was faced with all this time on my hands. That's when I was like, "OK, it's time to do my [stuff]." It really was about getting to a place where I had no choice.

Moving on to the "Alekesam" movie, tell us how it's different from "Umlando -- Through My Father's Eyes" [a series of videos on ESPN, aired during the network's coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa].
"Umlando" was incredible project. It was about South Africa, about taking advantage of my father's and my story to show the culture of South Africa. That was a two-week road trip through South Africa to show people the culture, the richness, the diversity ... all within the context of my father telling me stories about these places and what they meant to South Africans and what they meant to him when he was in exile. It was incredible.

The "Alekesam" movie came about while I was in the studio making music, and Jason [Bergh] came along and said, "OK, you have to let me put some cameras in the room. This isn't just you trying to scratch an itch. This is real and we have to capture this." So we started having a cameraman in the recording studio, sort of a fly on the wall.

At that point it seemed it was still in the context of Jason just making a promo piece for the album. But he ended up asking my dad about his journey and him being there for me, and not being there for me, and the challenges that those things presented to our relationship. After that interview, Jason said, "I have to make something more out of this and I need your permission to really tell your story."

He sat down with my mom, my uncle, my cousin, and ended up telling a story about where I had come from, which really starts with my dad, a man without a country -- without a home, really, sort of a nomad for 30 years -- fighting for an end to apartheid. It really tells our story of those challenges and us sort of coming full circle.

Growing up, were you able to comprehend what your father was dealing with politically?
I didn't figure out what it all meant until about 15. I hadn't seen him in about five years because he was off making music and living in other parts of Africa outside of South Africa. Then I saw him when he was playing with Paul Simon at Radio City Music Hall in New York. My mom and I went to, like, four shows that week and I got to hang around backstage with my dad. They were about to go back on the road and Paul Simon said to my mom, "We're going to go on a three-month road trip and I'm taking my son Harper out of school to come with us and we'd like Salema to come, too."

If my dad had asked my mom, there would have been no way. Paul knew that, so he asked my mom, and my mom's not going to say no to Paul Simon. So my mom convinced my stepdad that it would be OK. So I was a roadie on the Graceland tour. Australia, Europe, all through the states, and I had this incredible, incredible time.

Also, there was a lot of controversy with Paul Simon [being portrayed as] this white colonialist who was cannibalizing South African music for profit [because the "Graceland" album was recorded with many famous South African musicians]. But Paul's idea was, "Why don't we show the world how rich South Africa is with this music?" And that's when I saw my dad's passion at full blast.

He had just written a song about Nelson Mandela, which was sort of a freedom song to get Nelson Mandela out of prison. And seeing my dad dealing with these things in the press and how he spoke to thousands of people around the world about these things, that's when I really started to understand that, OK, my dad is a freedom fighter. And that's really when I was able give him a pass for not being there for me.

Was your father able to comprehend what you were dealing with in his absence?
Before making the movie, we had dealt with a lot of that stuff. My dad also dealt with addiction quite heavily, to the point where through the mid-90s there was five-year time when I had only spoken to him once and really had to resign to the idea that something bad was going to happen to him, so I should keep my distance. Then he got clean around 1997, '98, and that's when our relationship really jump-started.

So over the last 10 or 12 years, we've dealt with a lot of that. He also came to appreciate and love what it was that I was doing and to understand that action sports was my music and it's creative and it's something that I'm passionate about. He came to the X Games and freaked out on the skateboarding and really came to have a sense of pride and to encourage me and remotivate me to continue to grow.

To have your dad's approval is something we all strive for. For me it came late, but it really injected some energy in me to aspire to some things that I was afraid to do or thought that I couldn't do because I was Huge Masekela's son. I thought I was going to have to live in that shadow and wasn't allowed to create or do my own thing. The movie kind of tells that story, but he and I have been right now for about the last decade.

I think there are some things that he learned from the movie about what I was going through as a kid. At the same time, I learned some things about what he was going through on the road and trying to find himself. We both watched each other's interviews in the movie, and it's a weird way to communicate, but we did some more communicating through this film.

Have you written music together?
We haven't. This last record, I really wanted him to play on, but he was in South Africa playing shows and couldn't do it. We tried. He sent some tracks over, but they didn't fit with what was going on in the studio. But we will be making music together. We've both been chomping at the bit to do so. Definitely this year.

Shifting gears now, how do you think the X Games have evolved since you've been involved?
At first, I thought that it wouldn't last this long. I wasn't worried about action sports -- they take care of themselves. But whenever a mainstream audience is part of the equation and companies outside the endemics get involved ... you always took it with a grain of salt because at the end of the day it was always about the bottom line. I really thought that about the X Games.

That being said, ESPN stuck with it. And it's grown into something now where people who aren't participants in the lifestyle are fans of the sports and of the athletes. I never thought that the mainstream audience would outdo the core audience when it came to fandom.

What have the X Games done for your career?
It has allowed me to continue to live the same life I've lived since I was a kid, living in a studio apartment, working odd jobs and trying to support my habit of trying to surf and snowboard as much as I can. It's allowed me to continue to be right at the pulse of what's happening in action sports, the same way as when I was a receptionist at TransWorld 20 years ago.

At the same time, it's provided me a base to have a real career. I've been able to develop a massive audience of people who somehow or another choose me as their guide to tell them these stories. I'm deeply, deeply grateful for that.