South Africa mourns the loss of the Legendary trumpeter, composer, singer and anti-apartheid activist, Hugh Masekela. He lost his battle with prostate cancer for which he had been receiving treatment since 2008. “The father of South African jazz” as he had been dubbed, died on Tuesday, January 23 2018.
Hugh Masekela was born in Witbank, in the township of Kwa-Guqa. His journey to critical acclaim started when he was just 14 years old. He attended St’ Peter’s Secondary school where Archbishop Trevor Huddleston gifted him with a trumpet from Louis Armstrong. He never looked back.
In the 1950s, he became a member of the Jazz Epistles, alongside Johnny Gertze, Abdullah Ibrahim, Makhaya Ntshoko and Kippie Moeketsi. In 1989, the group released an LP, becoming the first jazz band in Africa to do so. On March 21st 1960, the Sharpeville massacre occurred where 69 protesters were shot by apartheid police.
Due to this incidence, the government banned the gathering of more than 10 people and increased brutality and the group had to disband. Masekela went to America where he studied Classical Trumpet at the Manhattan School of Music from 1960 to 1964. When asked about this period of his life he said, “When I left South Africa I was 20 years old. I wanted to try to get an education and music education was not available for me in South Africa.”
In 1964 he married the legendary South African songstress Miriam Makeba, however, their union was brief – divorcing 2 years later. 4 years later, Masekela released “Grazing In The Grass”, which became a smash hit, landing the number one spot on the US Pop Hit charts.
In the 80’s he collaborated with other African artists on classics such as “Stimela” (Coal Train) and “Mace and Grenades.” His most potent song against the apartheid regime was Bring Him Home (Mandela), where he croons about resisting oppression and calling for Nelson Mandela to be released.
In 1986, he created the Botswana International School of Music (BISM), a non profit organization where young African musicians are taught in all things music. Following his passion for justice and equality, “Soweto Blues” was released in 1987, mourning the bloodshed caused by the apartheid government in Soweto.
In 1989, after witnessing one of Masekela’s performances, Peter Wastrous reviewed it for the New York Times, writing “Mr. Masekela, playing the cornet, contrasted short long lines that flowed with the authority and phrasing reminiscent of the trumpeter Clifford Brown. When he sang, in the hoarse shout of the township music from Johannesburg, the band percolated him. The show ended with a tribute to Nelson Mandela, which had the audience both dancing and holding fists in the air”.
Hugh Masekela’s many accolades includes 2 Grammy awards, a Tony award nomination and many others. He also held an honorary Doctorate degree from the University of New York. He was an advocate for the disenfranchised and a champion for equality and passionate about sociopolitical issues.
“I think it is incumbent on all human beings to oppose injustice in every form.”
The global community has suffered a huge loss. Hugh Masekela touched many lives in his decades long career. His music inspires courage and compassion amongst people. His legacy lives on through his son Sal Masekela, his daughter Pula Twala, and his grand children. Rest in peace Bra Hugh!