South African trumpeter, singer and activist Hugh Masekela, whose music became symbolic of the country’s anti-apartheid movement, even as he spent three decades in exile, died on Tuesday in Johannesburg. He was 78.
His death was confirmed by Dreamcatcher, a communications agency that represented him.
Masekela came to the forefront of his country’s music scene in the 1950s, when he became a pioneer of South African jazz as a member of the Jazz Epistles, a bebop sextet that included the pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and other future stars.
After a move to the US in 1960, he won international acclaim and carried the mantle of his country’s freedom struggle.
His biggest hit was Grazing in the Grass, a peppy instrumental from 1968 with a twirling trumpet hook and a jangly cowbell rhythm.
In the 1980s, as the struggle against apartheid hit fever pitch, he worked often with fellow expatriate musicians, and with others from different African nations. On songs like Stimela, Mace andGrenades and the anthem Mandela, he played spiralling, plump-toned trumpet lines and sang of fortitude and resisting oppression in a gravelly tenor, landing somewhere between a storyteller’s incantation and a folk singer’s croon.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, he collaborated with musicians across sub-Saharan Africa, constantly expanding his style to accommodate a range of traditions.
In 1986, Masekela founded the Botswana International School of Music, a non-profit organisation aimed at educating young African musicians. The next year, he played with Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the Graceland tour, which was not allowed in South Africa but made stops in nearby countries.
On that tour, Masekela often performed Mandela, a hit song demanding justice for Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned on Robben Island at the time.
Masekela tended to emphasise the breadth of the musical tradition that inspired him. “I was marinated in jazz, and I was seasoned in music from home,” he said in a 2009 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “Song is the literature of South Africa.”
He added, “There’s no political rally that ever happened in South Africa without singing being the main feature.”
Ramopolo Hugh Masekela was born on April 4, 1939, in Witbank, South Africa, a coal-mining town near Johannesburg. His father, Thomas Selema Masekela, was a health inspector and noted sculptor; his mother, Pauline Bowers Masekela, was a social worker.
As a young child, Masekela was raised primarily by his grandmother, who ran an illegal bar for mine workers. “One of the great things also about Witbank was that all these people brought their different music and their different stories about where they came from,” he said of the miners. “As a little kid, I hung out with them in the backyard and the kitchen and I knew all about their countries.”
When he was 12, he entered St Peter’s Secondary School, a boarding school in Rosettenville, closer to Johannesburg. By that point he had already begun to pursue music, singing in groups on the street and learning piano in private lessons.
He grew infatuated with the trumpet in 1950, after seeing Kirk Douglas in the film Young Man With a Horn, based on a novel inspired by the life of the trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke.
At St Peter’s, he was encouraged to pursue music by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, an influential anti-apartheid advocate and organiser. He took lessons from Uncle Sauda, an esteemed local trumpeter, and quickly mastered the basics.
Huddleston established the Huddleston Jazz Band, a youth orchestra, partly to give Masekela an opportunity to play, and later, during a trip to the US, he met Louis Armstrong, who had a trumpet sent to the band. The instrument made its way into Masekela’s hands.
By 1956, Masekela was performing in dance bands around Johannesburg and in cities across the country. In 1959, he played in the pit band of the hit musical King Kong, with music composed by the seminal South African pianist Todd Matshikiza.
The next year he joined Abdullah Ibrahim (then known as Dollar Brand) and four other upstart instrumentalists in the Jazz Epistles, South Africa’s first bebop band of note. With a heavy, driving pulse and warm, arcing melodies, their music was distinctly South African, even as its swing rhythms and flittering improvisations reflected affinities with American jazz.
“There had never been a group like the Epistles in South Africa,” Masekela said in his 2004 autobiography, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela, written with D. Michael Cheers. “Our tireless energy, complex arrangements, tight ensemble play, languid slow ballads and heart-melting, hymn-like dirges won us a following, and soon we were breaking all attendance records in Cape Town.”
The group recorded just one album, which was printed in a run of 500 and eventually became a kind of Holy Grail for collectors.
After the “Sharpeville massacre” in March 1960, in which 69 protesters were killed by police officers in a township outside Johannesburg, the government banned public gatherings of more than 10 black people. This forced groups like the Jazz Epistles to take their performances underground; Masekela and Ibrahim soon chose to leave the country.
In 1960, Masekela moved briefly to London, where he studied at the Guildhall School of Music, before the singers Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba helped him secure a scholarship to attend the Manhattan School of Music. He studied classical trumpet there for four years.
In 1962, he recorded his debut album, Trumpet Africaine, for the Mercury label. He followed it in 1964 with Grrr, also on Mercury. That album — which featured the trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, a veteran of the Jazz Epistles who had also relocated to New York — included a number of Masekela originals that reflected his devotion to his musical roots.
On tunes like Sharpeville, the effortless churn of the rhythms and the thrumming harmonies reflected the influence of marabi, an instrumental style developed in the early 20th century by workers in the townships outside Johannesburg.
During this time, Masekela often wrote instrumental arrangements for Makeba. Their partnership turned romantic, and the couple married in 1964. The marriage ended in divorce two years later, but the two later continued to collaborate.
Masekela is survived by a son, Sal Masekela, from his relationship with Jessie Marie Lapierre; a daughter, Pula Twala, from his relationship with Motshidisi Jennifer Ndamse; and his sisters, Elaine and Barbara Masekela. Three other marriages — to Chris Calloway, Jabu Mbatha and Elinam Cofie — also ended in divorce.
In 1964, Masekela and Stewart Levine, a fellow student at the Manhattan School, established the independent label Chisa, named for the Zulu word for “burn.” The two would remain lifelong collaborators and friends.
The label struck gold in 1968 when Masekela released the album The Promise of a Future, featuring Grazing in the Grass. With a sanguine two-chord hook, the song registered as a beatific ode to summer; it was released in May and hit No 1 on the Billboard charts in mid-July.
By that time, Masekela had begun to sing; on other tracks on the album, including Vuca and Bajabula Bonke he sang in Zulu, sounding tones of uplift and resistance.
But alongside success came overindulgence. Masekela developed a dependence on alcohol early in his career, and by the early 1970s he was addicted to cocaine, as well. His substance abuse began to inhibit his work.
“No recording company was interested in me,” he told the music historian Gwen Ansell last year.
He sought solace on his home continent. “For me, songs come like a tidal wave,” he said. “At this low point, for some reason, the tidal wave that whooshed in on me came all the way from the other side of the Atlantic: from Africa, from home.”
When he kicked his addictions in the 1990s, Masekela established the Musicians and Artists Assistance Programme of South Africa, to help South Africans battle substance abuse.
In 1980, Masekela returned to Africa. He settled in Botswana, where he set up a mobile recording studio and recorded two albums. In 1987, he travelled to London to record the album Tomorrow, which included Mandela.
In the 1970s, Masekela toured sub-Saharan Africa and began a partnership with the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, who had recently pioneered the genre known as Afrobeat.
He also worked with the exiled South African saxophonist Dudu Pukwana and began fronting the Ghanaian group Hedzoleh Soundz. He recorded two albums with the group, Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz and I Am Not Afraid, and toured the US with them in 1974.
Partly thanks to Kuti’s influence, Masekela began to record longer, more immersive tracks, using electronic effects and letting grooves linger for minutes on end. That style is heard to perhaps its greatest effect on The Boy’s Doin’ It, which Masekela recorded in Lagos with Nigerian musicians in 1975.
Masekela moved back to South Africa in 1990, the year Mandela was released from prison. He continued to record and tour around the world into his mid-70s.
In 2010, Masekela was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in gold, South Africa’s highest medal of honour.
Since 2014, Soweto has been the site of an annual Hugh Masekela Heritage Festival, with the stated aim “to restore our South African heritage and to uplift the local artisans of Soweto.”
-Reporting by Giovanni Russonello.
"He has been a part of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival from the very beginning in 2000, and performed at our festival many times over the past 19 years … I loved his sense of humour and I loved the time we spent together. He was the ultimate professional and when it came to showtime, he showed up and gave it his all. The youth of today must listen to his music and even if they change it and sample it, know that that was the root of the music that is Hugh Masekela.”
Cape Town International Jazz Festival director, Billy Domingo
Of the countless shows I had the honour of watching my dad perform, each felt like the first, each felt brand new. At the age of five, he first introduced me to the late night halls of Manhattan’s The Village Gate and Mikell’s, where he would steal the hearts and souls of innocents with a musical storytelling all his own, passionately and relentlessly transporting them to the farthest reaches of Africa with both voice and trumpet.
It was these moments and his choosing to take me around the globe any chance he got, that would come to shape my entire world view. As a product of the meticulously designed apartheid regime of 20th century South Africa, my father’s life was the definition of activism and resistance. Despite the open arms of many countries, for 30 years he refused to take citizenship anywhere else on this earth.
It was his undying and childlike love for South Africa and the entire African continent; with its dizzying displays of natural beauty, music, art and culture that mesmerised me more than anything.
He was beautifully obsessed with showcasing the endless magic and pageantry of African peoples to a western obsessed world. After a recent trip to Tanzania caused me to share with my dad that my heart was full, he simply said this to me, “I can give you my heart to take in the overspill.”
Sal Masekela, son
Masekela refused to be boxed into a music genre. “I do not categorise what I do. I play African music that is influenced by whatever I have been exposed to,” Masekela, told The EastAfrican in 2006. “I don’t think that I fall in any category. I do not think most musicians categorise themselves. I think these categories are media and marketing devices. I do not aspire to them.” Masekela’s first concert in Uganda was held at the Kampala Serena Hotel on September 2, 2006 in aid of the Uganda Society for Disabled Children, whom he spent time with. He held two other concerts in Kampala, in 2015 and 2017.
The two times I interviewed Masekela in Kampala, I observed that despite his global clout and appeal he was down-to-earth, jolly and loved joking. As a cultural activist, Masekela was against Africans aping Western culture.
“I formed the Hugh Masekela Heritage Foundation out of concern that as Africans we are the only society in the world that imitates other cultures at the expense of our own heritage. We were historically defeated and live in artificial borders that were defined by our conquerors,” Masekela said in a 2017 interview. “For over three centuries, we have been convinced that our own heritage is savage, maybe heathen, pagan, primitive or backward. We protect the colonial precepts and concepts that have been imposed on us. We are running away from what we are; we spend $100 billion a year so that our women can wear other people’s hair. That is how sad our situation is,” Masekela added.
Bamuturaki Musinguzi, correspondent, The EastAfrican
Masekela’s songs, broadcast on radio or played on LP albums, are synonymous with my childhood. Bring Him Back Home, Stimela and Grazing in the Grass are some of my favourites of his hits.
I met him for the first time two years ago. Humorous, straight-talking and storyteller by nature, he said he was bewitched by music as a young child. At his last performance in Kenya in August 2016 he played the trumpet non-stop and danced with a vigour that belied his 77 years.
He was a great proponent of local arts and cultural heritage, immensely proud of his African roots. At an event with Kenyan media he pointed out a lady journalist with a hair weave, referring to her hairstyle as un-African.
READ: Hugh Masekela opens up on music, politics
Kari Mutu, correspondent, The EastAfrican
I grew up listening to Masekela as my parents’ music. Then it became mine. And now it has become part of the music of our children. His art was the sound of three generations. Not too long ago, our daughter was in a restaurant in Durban. In walked Masekela. There was excitement, and her party asked him to take a photograph. He refused to take a photo with anyone else except her, for a very Masekela reason — she was the only one who wasn’t wearing a weave. He was into the politics of black hair!
READ: Hugh Masekela is dead: An East African farewell for a great man
Charles Onyango-Obbo, columnist, The EastAfrican