Hugh Masekala: Elegy for celebrated master of African music, freedom fighter

Hugh Masekala


No doubt, South African trumpeter, fleugel hornist, composer and singer, Hugh Ramapolo Masekela is an acknowledged and celebrated master of African music. Little wonder, when he cancelled his appearance last year at the Johannesburg ‘Joy of Jazz Festival’, to take time out to deal with his serious health issues, fans were forced to return to his recorded opus for reminders of his unique work.

Born on April 4, 1939 in Kwa-Guqa Township, Witbank, a coal mining settlement near Johannesburg, to a health inspector and acclaimed sculptor father, Thomas Masekela and a social worker mother, Pauline. He was raised by his grandmother, Johanna and was always surrounded by music.

As one of South Africa’s most recognized freedom fighters in the battle against apartheid, his significance as a worldwide symbol against oppression cannot be overemphasized. At age four, he was already fascinated by the celebrity wedding band, the Jazz Maniacs and their trumpeter Drakes Mbau that performed at his aunt Lily’s wedding. By age six, he was singing the songs of the street, and at nine, he had begun attending missionary schools, St Peter’s, where he learned to play the piano.

While at St Peter’s, a remarkable secondary school for black children that became a centre for opponents of apartheid before being closed by the authorities, he was mentored by Oliver Tambo, who later became the leader of the ANC, and Trevor Huddleston, later Archbishop Huddleston, and president of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement.

‘Bra Hugh Masekela’ like he is fondly called by his native South Africans, first became interested in playing the trumpet after seeing the 1950 film, Young Man With a Horn, which tells the story of jazz maestro, Bix Beiderbecke. He had wanted a trumpet after seeing the film, and he approached Huddleston for it, saying: “If I can get a trumpet I won’t bother anyone any more.”

Huddleston managed to raise £15 (a lot of money in those days) to buy the instrument, hence giving Hugh his first instrument (a trumpet) at age 14, and found a black Salvation Army trumpeter to teach him.

Hugh was constantly sat outside the school, making hideous noises. This propelled other pupils’ desire for instruments as well, which was provided to them. This gave birth to what was later known as the Huddleston Jazz Band. Along with Hugh, the band featured the trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, who would also become a star.

Always in one form of trouble to the other, Hugh was a delinquent, always fighting with the teachers or going into town to steal. He was sent to Huddleston for corrective measures.“I was one of the worst delinquents, always fighting with the teachers or going into town stealing. You’d be sent to him (Huddleston) when everything else had failed,” he once said in an interview.

As a teenager, Hugh began playing with South African dance bands, some of which toured major African cities. In 1958, he joined Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz Revue and the following year formed his own band, the Jazz Epistles, with pianist Dollar Brand, drummer Makaya Ntshoko, trombonist Jonas Gwanga, and alto saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi.

He continued to enjoy massive help from Huddleston even after he had left St Peter’s and South Africa. In 1956, when Huddleston was in the US publicising his book Naught for Your Comfort, he told Hugh’s story to a journalist, who suggested that it might interest Louis Armstrong, the best known trumpeter of the day.

Fascinated by the story, Armstrong handed one of his horns to Huddleston to give to Hugh and it was straight sent to South Africa. “I sent it straight to South Africa, and I have a wonderful picture of Hugh jumping for joy,” Huddleston had said.Hugh’s skill as a trumpeter increased and so did his fame. He played at fundraising events for the ANC in the 1950s before it was banned, with Mandela among those who came to watch.
With his greatest influences include the performers of American swing, Hugh’s vibrant trumpet and flügelhorn solos were featured in pop, R&B, disco, Afro-pop, and jazz contexts. His style, especially on flügelhorn was a charismatic blend of striking upper-register lines, half-valve effects and repetitive figures and phrases, with some slur bending and tonal colours. Later, he became interested in be-bop jazz and the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, whom he credited with the development of his talent.

He explored South African styles and avidly followed developments in the American jazz scene as he developed his distinctive Afro-jazz sound. He joined Abdullah Ibrahim (then known as Dollar Brand) and Gwangwa in the Jazz Epistles, who in 1959 recorded the first album by a South African jazz band, Jazz Epistle Verse 1.

In the same year, he teamed up with Gwangwa and others in the band for the adventurous hit musical ‘King Kong’, and at the Guildhall and then Manhattan schools of music with singer Miriam Makeba, another South Africa music legend popularly known as ‘Mama Africa’, whom he performed with at an ‘all-African jazz opera’; US pop successes in the 1970s and then touring Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ in the 80s and 90s. The imagination he periodically applied to his music draw it fresh from the flames.

While his accessible, storytelling style and lyrical instrumental tone are very different; he shared one important characteristic with the American jazz legend, Miles Davis, whose life and music were marked by constant reinvention. Like the music master that he is, Hugh often simplified his playing to fit into restrictive pop formulas, and was capable of outstanding ballad and be-bop work.

Hugh left the South Africa in 1960, the year of the Sharpeville massacre and the banning of the ANC. According to reports, he was lucky to get out, as his angry stance to apartheid rule had already come to the attention of the authorities. He travelled first to London, where he was disappointed by the jazz scene, and then to New York, where, like Makeba, the musician and activist Harry Belafonte helped him. He enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music and immersed himself in the city’s jazz scene, watching Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.

Hearkening to Dizzy Gillespie and Armstrong advice to develop his own African style, in 1963, he released his debut album, Trumpet Africaine. He composed and recorded many new songs in New York, including his 1968 number one hit Grazing in the Grass.

Having become an international symbol of anti-apartheid activism and angry political voice in exile, using his music and live performances to attack the apartheid regime that had banished him, 12 years after, he decided to come back to Africa to explore the music of countries he had never visited.

Hugh travelled across West Africa, beginning from Guinea, where Makeba had moved to with her new husband Stokely Carmichael, and then to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Makeba had left South Africa and following the revocation of her citizenship as a result of her participation in the anti-apartheid film, Come Back Africa. In the 1980s, he set up a mobile studio in Botswana, where he further developed his musical style using African mbaqanga strains.

In 1973, he spent time in Kinshasa, meeting such musicians as the guitarist Franco, and went on to Liberia, Ghana, and Nigeria, where he stayed for a month with Fela Kuti. The rebellious Kuti introduced him to the Ghanaian band Hedzoleh Soundz, with whom he recorded and later toured the US.

He returned to Africa with Levine in 1974, when they put together the Zaire 74 concerts that preceded the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ boxing match in Kinshasa between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman. Following angry disputes with the promoter, Don King, the historic recordings that involved Franco and Makeba, were released only in 2017.

Upon his return to South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, after having lived and worked in the US and in Botswana, Hugh continued to comment fearlessly on political events in South Africa and around the world, enjoying his status as an international celebrity, playing for presidents and royalty, concert audiences, and often collaborating with other musical greats.

Deeply affected by his life experiences, his music portrayed the struggles and joys of living in South Africa, and voiced protest against slavery and discrimination. He had collaborations with international artistes like The Byrds and Paul Simon.

He performed with Paul Simon on the Graceland tour, along with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. His 1987 hit, Bring Him Back became the anthem for Nelson Mandela’s world tour, following his release from prison in 1992. He produced music for the musicals like Sarafina, and was featured in the 2003 documentary film, Amandla!

Hugh’s musical style incorporated various African styles fused with jazz and funk, and evolved into more of an adult contemporary style, which can be heard on his albums Techno-Bush, Tomorrow, Uptownship and Revival.He recorded and issued more than 40 albums across his career with the latest being No Borders, which he released in 2016. He, also, extensively toured the world, which the recent being a 2007 tour to the USA and Canada to promote the live recording, Hugh Masekela: Live at the Market Theatre.

Prior to his death on Tuesday, January 23 after a battle with prostate cancer, Hugh was honoured with South Africa’s highest honour, the Order of Ikhamanga for his remarkable achievements both in music and the socio-political scene.At the 2017 All Africa Music Awards (AFRIMA), which held in Lagos last November, Hugh was nominated in categories, ‘Best Male Artiste in Southern Africa’ for his recent single Shango, ‘Album of the Year’ for his recent album No Borders and ‘Best Artiste in African Jazz’.

He was scheduled to be at the Awards but was unable to make it due to ill health. The three nominations show that the legend waxed strong till his last breadth.Reacting to the news of death, the President and Executive Producer, AFRIMA, Mike Dada, in a statement said, it is a huge loss for the continent and African music.

“Masekela’s music had the depth, the lyricism and the instrumentation that place the legend in the class of world music classics with a definitive signature of its African sound. The music icon will be greatly missed but his music and struggle for free and prosperous Africa will always be in our hearts and minds.”According to Dada, AFRIMA will pay tribute to music icon in a spectacular way at the fifth edition of its awards scheduled to hold in November this year.

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Hugh Masekala


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