Hugh Masekela, a beloved multi-instrumentalist and activist from South Africa whose long career included a surprise pop hit, collaborations with Herb Alpert and The Byrds, and the organization of a 1974 Zaire music festival that preceded the famed “Rumble In The Jungle,” died Jan. 23 in Johannesburg after a battle with prostate cancer. He was 78.
Considered the father of South African jazz, Rampolo Hugh Masekela was born on April 4, 1939, in the town of Witbank.
While he started off singing in local groups and learning the piano, Masekela became enamored of the trumpet after seeing Young Man With A Horn, the 1950 Kirk Douglas film inspired by the life of Bix Beiderbecke. Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, a chaplain at Masekela’s school, encouraged the young man to pursue his music studies, even going so far as to get Louis Armstrong to donate a trumpet to the cause. One of the most famous photographs of Maskela (which can be seen on the cover of some editions of his autobiography, Still Grazing) shows him in mid-air, limbs extended and a joyful expression on his face as he brandishes Satchmo’s horn.
Masekela quickly mastered his chosen instrument, seeking out every opportunity to perform. That would land him gigs backing up the Manhattan Brothers, a vocal ensemble that featured Miriam Makeba, and playing in bop combo the Jazz Epistles with his close friend Dollar Brand, who’s now known as Abdullah Ibrahim.
Troubled by the daunting weight of apartheid in South Africa, Masekela left his home country in 1960. He landed first in London, but soon emigrated to the U.S. thanks to a scholarship for the Manhattan School of Music. It was there that he made a connection with another student, Stewart Levine, who would not only become one of Masekela’s closest friends but one of his most frequent collaborators.
“He was extremely erudite,” Levine remembers.“He was a great, great intellect. He was involved with music from anywhere, particularly the music of his homeland, and obsessed with jazz like I was. And he was one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met. We seemed to have a lot in common, including our ability to laugh whenever we wanted to.”
The pair eventually would move to the West Coast, where Masekela cemented his signature sound—a buoyant mix of jazz, pop, r&b and African music—and found his greatest commercial success. After relocating to Los Angeles and setting up the independent label Chisa, Masekela became something of a sensation, earning a spot in the lineup for the Monterey Pop Festival and time in the studio with The Byrds, where he provided the trumpet solo for “So You Want To Be A Rock ’n’ Roll Star.” Masekela also landed a No. 1 single with the breezy and instantly catchy original “Grazing In The Grass,” a song from his 1968 album The Promise Of A Future.
Through the next two decades, Masekela frequently returned to Africa, seeking musical inspiration and collaborators from countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Zaire. It was in that last country where he and Levine helped organize Zaire 74, a music event in Kinshasa that put James Brown and B.B. King in the mix with local artists like Tabu Ley Rochereau.
While Masekela did make some concessions to the pop marketplace, like recording an album with fellow trumpeter Herb Alpert, his original work in the ’70s and ’80s took on a more political edge. Albums like 1976’s Colonial Man made bitter references to Vasco Da Gama, the Portuguese explorer who helped open Africa up to the West, and “Bring Him Back Home,” a song demanding the release of anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela.
“I was born about 100 miles east of Johannesburg, but over the last five years I’ve traveled extensively all over Africa, and I understand it more … as a collection of small colonies. The colonial intention was to separate the different states so they could serve the mother country, and to make sure the natives never met,” Masekela said in an interview with DownBeat writer Howard Mandel that ran in the May 6, 1976, issue. “As a result, my father, who lived in South Africa, never met his dad, who was from Nigeria. We’re living in an era now where Africans are meeting one another musically, and on all levels where we have a lot in common, and it’s not so much a difficulty, anymore.”
After three decades in exile, Masekela was able to return to South Africa in 1990, where he lived for the remainder of his life. Through that time, he remained busy, recording his own albums and appearing on sessions with performers as dissimilar as Cyndi Lauper and guitarist Jimmy Dludlu. He was also a constant presence on concert stages around the world. Until his health began to deteriorate, Masekela was set to perform with his Jazz Epistles bandmate Ibrahim at an event in British Columbia.
“One thing I’d like to say about Hugh Masekela is that he had a good time,” Levine remembered. “In spite of all of the problems and issues he was born into and adopted, he had a good time. And the world’s a better place for him having been here.” DB