South African superstar and music legend, Hugh Ramapolo Masekela, died on January 23 in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the age of 78. From a humble beginning in KwaGuqa Township, Witbank, South Africa, where he was born on April 4, 1939, Masekela rose to become one of the most accomplished and renowned Jazz musicians in the world. The music maestro and anti-apartheid activist of great repute bestrode the musical world like a colossus till his demise after a protracted battle with prostate cancer. No doubt, his death is a huge loss to the global music industry, especially the Jazz and mbaqanga genres in which he excelled.
This outstanding songster, who was once married to the late South African musical icon, Miriam Makeba (Mama Africa), spent 30 years in exile from his native South Africa on account of the apartheid regime in the country. He, however, returned to South Africa in 1990 after the country’s foremost freedom fighter and leader, Nelson Mandela, was released after 27 years in prison.
The late singer, composer and bandleader was a versatile musician who played many musical instruments such as the trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone and cornet, and he excelled in almost all. He was described as “the father of South African Jazz” and was widely known for his jazz compositions and the writing of well-known anti-apartheid songs such as “Soweto Blues” and “Bring Him Back Home.” Masekela had his number 1 US hit in 1968 with his version of “Grazing in the Grass.”
Masekela was raised by his grandmother, and began singing and playing piano as a child. But at the age of 14, he started playing the trumpet after watching the film, “Young Man with a Horn” in which Kirk Douglas played a character modeled on American jazz cornetist, Bix Beiderbecke. His first trumpet, from Louis Armstrong, was given to him by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, the anti-apartheid chaplain at St. Peter’s Secondary School, now known as St. Martin’s School (Rosettenville).
It was Huddleston that asked the leader of the then Johannesburg “Native” Municipal Brass Band, Uncle Sauda, to teach Masekela the rudiments of trumpet playing. After quickly mastering the trumpet, Masekela alongside some of his schoolmates who were interested in playing instruments, formed the Huddleston Jazz Band, South Africa’s first youth orchestra. After leading other ensembles, Masekela in 1956 joined Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz Revue. He played music that closely mirrored his life experiences. The agony, conflict and exploitation of South Africans in the 50s and 60s hugely inspired and influenced his music and made him an advocate for political and social change.
Later, his musical vision vividly portrayed the struggles, sorrows, joys and passions of his country. He used his music to protest against apartheid, slavery, bad government and the hardship in South Africa.
Following the March 21, 1960 Sharpeville massacre, Masekela left the country. Through the help of Huddleston and international friends, he was admitted into London Guildhall School of Music in 1960. Also during the period, he visited the United States, where he became friends with Harry Belafonte.
He later attended the Manhattan School of Music in New York, where he studied classical trumpet from 1960-1964. He married Miriam Makeba in 1964 and they divorced in 1966. He had hits in the United States with the pop jazz tunes “Up, Up and Away” (1967) and the number 1 smash, “Grazing in the Grass” (1968).
He released his Techno Push album in 1984 with the hit song “Don’t Go Lose It Baby” and a hit single “Bring Him Back Home” in 1987, a song that became so popular and later turned into an unofficial anthem of the anti-apartheid movement and an anthem for the movement to free Nelson Mandela.
Masekela collaborated with West and Central African musicians as well as South African players when he set up a mobile studio in Botswana from 1980-1984. In the 1980s, he toured with Paul Simon in support of Simon’s album, “Graceland.” He also provided interpretations of songs composed by such musical greats as Jorge Ben, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Fela Kuti. His inspiring life story is a lesson to all young musicians on how far they can go if they apply themselves to their art and strive to make a mark in their chosen field. We commiserate with Hugh Masekela’s family and fans, and the government and people of South Africa on his demise.