Hugh Masekela is regarded as the “father of South African Jazz” and one of the biggest names to make music from the African continent. He passed away on January 23, 2018, at the age of 78 in Johannesburg. He lost the battle to prostate cancer which he discovered in 2008. However, till his the death the legendary composer, trumpeter, bandleader, and political activist never stopped playing music.
In this article, we pay tribute to this African luminary by telling you about his life and achievements.
He was born on April 4, 1939, in Witbank, South Africa and was christened Hugh Ramapolo Masekela. The icon was raised by his grandma who ran an illegal bar for miners. From a tender age, he played the piano and sang till he met and fell in love with the trumpet at the age of 14 via a movie “Young man with a horn.”
He got his first trumpet, which belonged to Louis Armstrong, from Archbishop Trevor Huddleston. The bishop was an anti-apartheid chaplain at the St. Peter’s Secondary School. From then on, he practiced the instrument until he gained mastery of it. He got some help from Uncle Sauda who was the leader of the Municipal Brass band in Johannesburg. Masekela joined other young musicians to form the Huddleston Jazz Band which was the first South African youth orchestra.
He went on to use his music as a tool to speak against apartheid and joined several music groups including African Jazz Revue and Manhattan Brothers before playing with the first successful South African musical, King Kong. In 1959, he joined the Jazz Epistles who went on to become the first African jazz group to record an LP.
30 years outside South Africa
In 1960, at the age of 21, Masekela left South Africa to England through the help of Archbishop Huddleston and a few others. He was admitted to study music at the Guildhall School of Music in London. After a short while, he moved to the US where he attended the Manhattan School of Music, New York. In 1964, he got married to Miriam Makeba, though it lasted just two years.
Throughout his time outside South Africa, the gifted icon flourished, towing the path of greats who inspired him including Mark Davis, Charlie Mingus, John Coltrane, and Max Roach. His debut album was released in 1963 titled Trumpet Africaine.
His big break
Masekela moved from Manhattan to Los Angeles and began hanging out with music icons like Peter Fonda, David Crosby, and Dennis Hopper. In 1968, his single hit number one spot on the American Charts and this catapulted him to the international stage.
His solo career spanned over five decades during which he released 40 albums and collaborated with several other icons including Fela Kuti, Paul Simon, Dizzy Gillespie, and Stevie Wonder to mention a few.
His return home
In 1990, after the release of Nelson Mandela and the overthrow of apartheid, Masekela returned home. He featured in a documentary movie titled “Amandla: A revolution in four-part harmony” released in 2003. He went on to feature in several concerts, release albums, and even open the 2010 FIFA World Cup hosted by South Africa.
Hugh Masekela won tons of awards during his days including being nominated thrice for the Grammys. The great icon is greatly missed on the music scene and in his home country, South Africa.