Text by Dawoud Kringle
On Tuesday, January 21st, 2018, the music world was saddened to hear that legendary trumpet player, composer, and music activist Hugh Masekela passed away from pancreatic cancer. Thus ended a career of over half a century. He was 79.
Masekela began playing trumpet in his teens (an apocrypha of his biography holds that his first trumpet was a gift from Louis Armstrong. Another version of the story holds that the instrument was donated by Armstrong to anti-apartheid chaplain Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, at St. Peter’s Secondary School). At the end of 1959, Dollar Brand (later known as Abdullah Ibrahim), Kippie Moeketsi, Makaya Ntshoko, Johnny Gertze and Hugh formed the Jazz Epistles, the first African jazz group to record an LP. Their 1959-60 concerts in Johannesburg and Cape Town were hugely successful.
March 21st, 1960 the Sharpeville massacre saw 69 protesters killed by police, the South African government banned gatherings of ten or more people, and the brutality of the Apartheid state became intolerable (apparently, the Apartheid government couldn’t understand why human beings refuse to be oppressed and enslaved). With the help of Trevor Huddleston, Yehudi Menuhin, and John Dankworth, Masekela left the country. Dankworth got Masakela admitted into London’s Guildhall School of Music.
He soon traveled to New York to study music. He began a relationship with singer Miriam Makeba, which opened the door to professional gigs. The spirit of the times was ripe for his arrival; afro jazz, Summer of Love, Black Power, Pan-Africanism, the later rise of disco and club culture, digital recording, etc. all provided inspiration and a catalyst for his music. His 1968 hit “Grazing In the Grass” gave his career a boost. 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 Stewart Levine organized the Zaire 74 Music Festival in Kinshasa set around the Rumble in the Jungle boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
Masekela toured with Paul Simon in the 80s, in support of Simon’s album Graceland, which featured South African artists Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba, Ray Phiri, and other elements of the band Kalahari. He also collaborated in the musical development for the Broadway play, Sarafina. and made other recordings with Kalahari.
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 Masekela, co-authored with journalist D. Michael Cheers.
On December 3rd, 2013, Masekela guested with the Dave Matthews Band in Johannesburg, South Africa. In 2016, Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim performed together at Emperors Palace, Johannesburg, as part of the reunion of the Jazz Epistles in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the June 1976 youth demonstrations. It was their first performance together in 60 years,
Masekela served as a director on the board of the Lunchbox Fund, a non-profit organization that provides a daily meal to students of township schools in Soweto. He was nominated for a Grammy Award three times, including one for Best Contemporary Pop Performance for “Grazing in the Grass” (1968), Best Musical Cast Show Album for Sarafina! The Music Of Liberation (1989), and Best World Music Album for his 2012 album Jabulani. Other honors Masekela earned include Rhodes University: Doctor of Music (honoris causa), 2015, Ghana Music Awards: 2007 African Music Legend award, Order of Ikhamanga: 2010 South African National Orders Ceremony, 27 April 2010, 2005 Channel O Music Video Awards: Lifetime Achievement Award, and others.
The most influential element in Masekela’s music, however, was the plight of his homeland, which he engaged with as an artist, and activist. Throughout his illustrious career, he’d never forgotten his social responsibility.
We salute the memory of this great musician.