Legendary Afro-jazz musician Hugh Masekela passed away last month at the age of 78 after a long battle with prostate cancer. The talented trumpeter, flugelhornist, composer, singer and anti-apartheid activist was one of South Africa’s most successful and influential musicians. Often called the “father of South African Jazz”, the musician’s illustrious career spanned over five decades and his combination of American jazz and traditional South African and African styles inspired thousands.
The musician affectionately known as “Bra Hugh”, showed musical talent from a very early age and at the age of 14 he was inspired by the 1950 musical film Young Man with A Horn to play the trumpet. The anti-apartheid activist, Father Trevor Huddleston, assisted Masekela in acquiring a trumpet and encouraging his musical career. After hearing of his talent, Father Huddleston, an American jazz legend, gave Hugh Masekela one of his own trumpets.
After the Sharpville Massacre and at the age of 21, he left for New York and started what would be a total of 30 years in exile. While in New York he attended the Manhattan School of Music and he immersed himself in the golden age of Jazz music of the 1960s. Under the instruction of Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, he developed his own unique style of Jazz which drew heavily from various African musical styles. In 1968, he released the instrumental single “Grazing in the Grass”. The single went on to top the American pop charts, received international acclaim and was nominated for a Grammy Award. Masekela would release a total of 40 albums and be nominated for two more Grammy awards.
Phuti Sepuru, a jazzy history and piano lecturer at UP, said that Masekela’s impact on the South African Music scene was immense. She said that he was able to draw attention to the music of South Africa through his work and through his feat of selling over 4 million copies of “Grazing in the Grass”. Secondly, that when one listens to Masekela’s music, the American influence is audible but he was able to go a step further and leave his personal imprint on the Afro-jazz sound. There are characteristic “licks” or phrases one immediately links Masekela’s style, and this is a sound that numerous trumpeters, horn players, and other instrumentalists often try to emulate in the hope of creating an authentic South African sound, or to pay homage to Masekela. She further said that, he did not earn the title “The Father of South African Jazz” by chance. Sepuru also said that he was an active performer to the end with his illness forcing him to take a break, “Anyone who has had the privilege of watching a live performance by Hugh Masekela will tell you that his energy and passion for his craft were unmatched.”
Masekela’s music had deep political and social undertones. Many of his albums often attacked the brutality and injustice of Apartheid. He also worked closely with political activist Harry Belafonte in order to reflect the realities of Apartheid South Africa. He composed the acclaimed protest song, “Soweto Blues” performed by Mariam Makeba. The song reflected the cruelty and injustice of the 1976 Soweto Uprising. In 1987 he released what would be the unofficial anti-apartheid anthem entitled, “Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)”. Other popular anti-apartheid works include “Chileshe” and “District six”.
Speaking of his anti-Apartheid activism, Sepuru said that Masekela, like musicians such as Miriam Makeba, brought international attention to the plight of South Africans oppressed by the Apartheid regime and that Masekela was not afraid to speak against racial inequality, oppression and colonialism. Sepuru farther added that “music is indeed one of the most powerful tools we have and that is why the apartheid government put a ban on certain records” and that Masekela used his music as a weapon to fight this regime. The musician was awarded a multitude of honours and recognitions. He was nominated for a Grammy Awards three times. He received the highest order in South Africa, the Order of Ikhamanga in 2011. He has also received multiple honourary doctorates from Universities such as the University of New York and WITS. The legendary artist has furthermore received many Legend Awards from the Ghana Music Awards, the Channel-O music awards and the MTV African Music Awards among others.
Image: Sally Hartzenburg