Hugh Masekela, South African Jazz Icon, Dies at 78

by Kim Boateng Posted on January 23rd, 2018

Johannesburg, South Africa : South African jazz legend, Hugh Masekela – fondly known at home as “Bra Hugh” – died in Johannesburg after a long battle with prostate cancer, aged 78, his family said Tuesday.

“[Our] hearts beat with profound loss,” the Masekela family said in a statement. “Hugh’s global and activist contribution to and participation in the areas of music, theatre, and the arts in general is contained in the minds and memory of millions across 6 continents …”

“A baobab tree has fallen, the nation has lost a one-of-a-kind musician with the passing of jazz legend bra Hugh Masekela,” Nathi Mthethwa, South Africa’s minister of arts and culture tweeted.

“We can safely say bra Hugh was one of the great architects of Afro-Jazz and he uplifted the soul of our nation through his timeless music,” the minister added.

Trumpeter, composer, flugelhorn player, bandleader, singer and political activist, Hugh Masekela, recorded more than 40 solo albums and collaborated with artists ranging from Harry Belafonte to Paul Simon

Born in Witbank, South Africa, on April 4, 1939, Hugh Masekela was given his first trumpet by anti-apartheid crusader Father Trevor Huddleston at age 14.

He had been inspired by the Kirk Douglas film Young Man with a Horn. Huddleston, hoping to steer him away from delinquency, asked what it was that would make Masekela happy. “I said, ‘Father, if you can get me a trumpet I won’t bother anybody anymore.'”

Masekela soon became part of the Huddleston Jazz Band.

By the mid-1950s, he joined the Alfred Herbet’s African Jazz Revue and began creating his signature “Afro-Jazz” sound.

In 1960, at the age of 21, as he was coming under pressure from authorities for his anti-apartheid activities, he decided to leave his home country for England.

Once in London, his then-girlfriend and future wife, singer Miriam Makeba, encouraged him to come to the U.S., where she had arrived the previous year.

In addition to Belafonte, he also worked with legends Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. Along with Miriam, they all encouraged him to develop his own style.

In 1962, he released his first album, Trumpet Africaine.

In 1967, the year of his hit Up, Up and Away, he also performed alongside Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, The Who and Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival. A year later, he performed on Grazing in the Grass, which went in the U.S. charts and on to become a global hit.

In 1977, Masekela’s Soweto Blues, about the anti-apartheid Soweto uprising, was recorded by Makeba, and it reached an international audience.

He penned the anti-apartheid anthem Bring Home Nelson Mandela in 1986 and returned to his native South Africa following Mandela’s release.

In 1987, he appeared with Paul Simon on his Graceland album tour alongside South African musicians Ladyship Black Mambozo and again in 2012 on the 25th anniversary of the Grammy-award winning album’s release.

In 1997, he acknowledged that he had become addicted to alcohol and many drugs, and checked himself into a recovery center in England.

Masekela received numerous international honours and in 2010 performed at the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup and tournament in Soweto’s Soccer City in South Africa.

Masekela performed at the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup and tournament in Soweto’s Soccer City in 2010.

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