By Manny Ita.
A world-renowned flugelhornist, trumpeter, bandleader, composer, singer and political activist , Hugh Masekela was a delight to listen to or watch when performing. He was one of the very few African artistes who mastered the jazz music genre such that when he kicked the bucket after a protracted battle with prostrate cancer exactly one year ago, on January 23, 2018, he left shoes too big for anyone to fill.
Like a child who falls in love with a toy car he sees as he walks past the street with his mother, Masekela came to love the trumpet after he saw a film where a man played the horn and the events that followed just showed how a man’s destiny could be shaped by incidents when towing the direction of what one loves.
As a child, Masekela loved to sing, and at age 14 he began playing the trumpet, getting lessons from Uncle Sauda, who was leader of the then Johannesburg “Native” Municipal Brass Band, from where he joined the newly formed Huddleston Jazz Band, South Africa’s first youth orchestra, having mastered the art.
Masekela’s first trumpet was given him by him by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, an anti-apartheid chaplain at St. Peter’s Secondary School now known as St. Martin’s School (Rosettenville), and actually belonged to Jazz maestro Louis Armstrong.
Masekela’s illustrious career was earlier on influenced by jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong under whom he got some training and the inspiration to be original and develop his own unique style from his African influences.
Masekela’s music reflected the struggles against oppression and apathied in his country. In 1956 he joined Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz Revue and in 1958, he joined the orchestra of South Africa’s first successful musical King Kong, written by Todd Matshikiza which recorded some hit songs after his debut album Trumpet Africaine released in 1963.
Given the success of the musical, the ochestra band toured South African cities and also London after which Masekela teamed up with other jazz artistes; Dollar Brand, Kippie Moeketsi, Makhaya Ntshoko, Johnny Gertze to form the Jazz Epistles in 1959 which made history as the first African jazz group to record an LP.
Masekela was apparently destined to become a great jazz act as events continued to shape that glorious destiny. At 21, Masekela had to leave South Africa for England due to increasing apatheid brutality, where he got admitted into London’s Guildhall School of Music with the help of Trevor Huddleston. He later studied classical trumpet at the Manhattan School of Music in New York.
Drawing inspiration from jazz greats like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach, Masekela had a great impact on the world scene, spending over three decades outside the shores of his country.
Masekela had over 40 albums to his credit in a solo career that spanned five decades, recording with various artistes including Harry Belafonte, Dizzy Gillespie, The Byrds, Fela Kuti, Marvin Gaye, Herb Alpert, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Miriam Makeba, of songs like “Up, Up and Away” (1967), “Don’t Go Lose It Baby” (1984) and “Bring Him Back Home” (1987) which was popularly known as the anthem for anti-apartheid movement and the movement to free Nelson Mandela.
Masekela toured Africa from 1974 when he organised the Zaire 74 music festival in Kinshasa with his friend Stewart Levine for the Rumble in the Jungle boxing match between Joe Fraiser and Mohammed Ali .
With the help of Jive Records, Masekela set up a mobile studio in Botswana from 1980 to reconnect with Southern African musicians and later founded the Botswana International School of Music (BISM) in Gaborone in 1985, which holds annual music workshops to date.
Hugh Masekela returned home to South Africa at last in 1990 after the apatheid regime was ousted and Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
In 2003, he was featured in the documentary film Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony. A year later, he published his autobiography, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela (co-authored with D. Michael Cheers).
He opened the South Africa 2010 FIFA World Cup Kick-Off Concert and the event’s Opening Ceremony in Soweto’s Soccer City.
Immediate past South African president Jacob Zuma honoured Masekela with the highest order in South Africa: The Order of Ikhamanga in 2010. He also received a Lifetime Achievement award at the WOMEX World Music Expo in Copenhagen in 2011. The US Virgin Islands proclaimed ‘Hugh Masekela Day’ in March 2011.
Besides the many awards Masekela won, he was nominated three times for a Grammy Award including a nomination for Best World Music Album for his 2012 album Jabulani, Best Musical Cast Show Album for Sarafina! The Music Of Liberation (1989) and Best Contemporary Pop Performance for “Grazin’ in the Grass” (1968).
He received many honours including the Doctor of Music (honoris causa) from the Rhodes University in 2015 and an Honorary Doctorate in Music from the University of York in 2014.
His life story continues with album releases, concerts. There was a feature in a series of videos on ESPN in 2010 with his son Selema “Sal” Masekela who is an American television host, sports commentator, actor, and singer born in 1971.
Masekela was born Hugh Ramapolo Masekela on April 4, 1939, in Witbank, South Africa to a health inspector father and social worker mother and was largely raised by his grandmother who ran an illegal bar for miners.
He married Miriam Makeba in 1964 and they divorced two years later.
Hugh Masekela lost a long battle with prostate cancer which was discovered 2008 and spread to other parts of his body. Despite the disease, he continued to perform until his death in Johannesburg on January 23, 2018.