South African trumpeter, flugelhornist, cornetist, composer, and singer Hugh Masekela was born in KwaGuqa Township, Witbank, South Africa on 4 April 1939. As a child, he began singing and playing piano and was largely raised by his grandmother, who ran an illegal bar for miner At the age of 14, after seeing the 1950 film Young Man with a Horn (in which Kirk Douglas plays a character modelled on American jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke), Masekela took up playing the trumpet. His first trumpet was bought for him from a local music store by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, the anti-apartheid chaplain at St. Peter’s Secondary School now known as St. Martin’s School (Rosettenville). Huddleston asked the leader of the then Johannesburg “Native” Municipal Brass Band, Uncle Sauda, to teach Masekela the rudiments of trumpet playing. Masekela quickly mastered the instrument. Soon, some of his schoolmates also became interested in playing instruments, leading to the formation of the Huddleston Jazz Band, South Africa’s first youth orchestra. When LouisArmstrong heard of this band from his friend Huddleston he sent one of his own trumpets as a gift for Hugh. By 1956, after leading other ensembles, Masekela joined Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz Revue
From 1954, Masekela played music that closely reflected his life experience. The agony, conflict, and exploitation South Africa faced during the 1950s and 1960s inspired and influenced him to make music and also spread political change. He was an artist who in his music vividly portrayed the struggles and sorrows, as well as the joys and passions of his country. His music protested about apartheid, slavery, government; the hardships individuals were living. Masekela reached a large population that also felt oppressed due to the country’s situation. Following a Manhattan Brothers tour of South Africa in 1958, Masekela wound up in the orchestra of the musical King Kong, written by Todd Matshiki. King Kong toured South Africa for a sold-out year with Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers’ Nathan Mdledle. The musical later went to London’s West End for two years. In 1959, Dollar Brand (later known as Abdullah Ibrahim), Kippie Moeketsi, Makhaya Ntshoko, Johnny Gertze and Hugh formed the Jazz Epistles the first African jazz group to record an LP. They performed to record-breaking audiences in Johannesburg and Cape Town
Following the 21 March 1960 Sharpeville massacre—where 69 protestors were shot dead in Sharpeville, and the South African government banned gatherings of ten or more people—and the increased brutality of the Apartheid state, Masekela left the country assisted by Trevor Huddleston and international friends such as Yehudi Menuhin and John Dankworth, who got him admitted into London’s Guildhall School of Music in 1960. Masekela moved to the United States to attend the Manhattan School of Music in New York, where he studied classical trumpet from 1960 to 1964 and was befriended by Harry Belafonte. In 1964, Mariam Makeba and Masekela were married, divorcing in 1966. He had hits in the United States with “Up, Up and Away” and “Grazing in the Grass” He also appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and was subsequently featured in the film Monterey Pop by D. A. Pennebaker. In 1974, Masekela and friend Stewart Levine organised the Zaire 74 music festival in Kinshasa set around the Rumble in the Jungle boxing match. He played primarily in jazz ensembles, with guest appearances on recordings by The Byrds (“So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and “Lady Friend”) and Paul Simon (“Further to Fly”). In 1984, Masekela released the album Techno Bush; featuring the single “Don’t Go Lose It Baby” then In 1987, he had a hit single with “Bring Him Back Home” which became an unofficial anthem of the anti-apartheid movement
A renewed interest in his African roots led Masekela to collaborate with West and Central African musicians, and finally to reconnect with Southern African players when he set up with the help of Jive Records a mobile studio in Botswana, just over the South African border, from 1980 to 1984. Here he re-absorbed and re-used mbaqanga strains, a style he continued to use following his return to South Africa in the early 1990s In 1985 Masekela founded the Botswana International School of Music (BISM), giving local musicians of all ages and from all backgrounds the opportunity to play and perform together. Masekela taught the jazz course at the first workshop, and performed at the final concert.
Masekela also toured with Paul Simon in support of The album Graceland, featuring South African artists such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba, Ray Phiri. He also collaborated in the musical development for the Broadway play, Sarafina! In 2003, he was featured in the documentary film Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony. In 2004, he released his autobiography, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh who, co-authored with journalist D. Michael Cheers which detailed Masekela’s struggles against apartheid in his homeland, as well as his personal struggles with alcoholism. His sound began blending mbaqanga, jazz/funk with South African sounds. he recorded with Herb Alpert plus the solo albums Techno-Bush, Tomorrow (featuring the anthem “Bring Him Back Home”), Uptownship (a lush-sounding ode to American R&B), Beatin’ Aroun de Bush, Sixty, Time, and Revival. The song “Soweto Blues”, sung by his former wife, Miriam Makeba, is a blues/jazz piece that mourns the carnage of the Soweto riots in 1976. He also did cover versions of songs composed by Jorge Ben, Antônio Carlos Jobim, Caiphus Semenya, Jonas Gwangwa, Dorothy Masuka, and Fela Kuti.
In 2006 Masekela was described by Michael A. Gomez, professor of history and Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University as “the father of South African jazz.” In 2009, Masekela released the album Phola (meaning “to get well, to heal”), which includes a new reinterpretation of “The Joke of Life (Brinca de Vivre)”. In 2010, Masekela was featured, with his son Selema Masekela, in the series, Umlando – Through My Father’s Eyes, Which focused on Hugh’s and Selema’s travels through South Africa. In 2013, Masekela guested with the Dave Matthews Band in Johannesburg, South Africa joining Rashawn Ross on trumpet for “Proudest Monkey” and “Grazing in the Grass”. In 2016, Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim performed together for the first time in 60 years at the Jazz Epistles at the Emperors Palace, Johannesburg, which commemorated the 40th anniversary of the historic 16 June 1976 youth demonstrations. Masakela sadly died in Johannesburg on the early morning of 23 January 2018 from prostate cancer, aged 78. 23 January 2018. He has been described as “the father of South African jazz”.