The trumpeter and international figurehead of South African jazz who composed “Soweto Blues” and “Bring Him Back Home” died on 23 January
“It is with profound sorrow that the family of Ramapolo Hugh Masekela announce his passing,” reads the family announcement of South African trumpeter, composer and singer Hugh Masekela’s death. “After a protracted and courageous battle with prostate cancer, he passed peacefully in Johannesburg, South Africa, surrounded by his family.
“Hugh's global and activist contributions to and participation in the areas of music, theatre and the arts in general is contained in the minds and memory of millions across six continents and we are blessed and grateful to be part of a life and ever-expanding legacy of love, sharing and vanguard creativity that spans the time and space of six decades,” it adds.
Masekela was born in 1939 in Witbank, a coalmining town east of Johannesburg. Having played piano from a young age, at 14 he was inspired by the film Young Man With A Horn to pick up the trumpet. At that time he studied at St Peter's Secondary School in Johannesburg. Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, the anti-Apartheid chaplain at the school, procured Masekela a trumpet and arranged for the bandleader of Johannesburg Native Municipal Brass Band to teach him. He later formed The Huddleston Jazz Band, South Africa's first youth orchestra, alongside his schoolmates, and by 1956 he was a member of Alfred Herbert's African Jazz Revue.
“My parents were the second urban generation on a totally large scale,” Masekela told Charles De Ledesma back in an interview in The Wire 10. "So were still experiencing the traumas of adapting to urban after rural life, having been brought to the city as a cheap labour force and put in encampments – townships.”
Masekela’s music agitated for political change, protesting against Apartheid, government and hardship. In 1959 he formed The Jazz Epistles alongside Abdullah Ibrahim (at that time still known as Dollar Brand), Kippie Moeketsi, Makhaya Ntshoko and Johnny Gertze – the first black South African jazz group to record an LP.
“I grew up watching the average black township person who went to the shebeens, how they were after their lands had been taken away, their traditions ruined, their relegation to below the status of second-class citizens, and the constant repression and harassment,” he told De Ledesma. “I saw how it was eating everybody up; most people couldn't cope with it. By the time I was 14, the buses had come to take us to be issued with passes, stand in rows and get numbered. The only difference with the way we were getting treated and the way the Jews in Nazi Europe had been treated ten years before was that we weren't exterminated... I grew up realising music was my only chance; by the time I was 15 I was making music and by 21 I was out of the country.”
Following a brief period at the Guildhall in London, he headed for the US and attended the Manhattan School of Music in New York to study trumpet. He formed a quartet with Larry Willis on piano, Hal Dobson on bass and Henry Jenkins on drums. He also wrote and recorded extensively with vocalist Miriam Makeba, whom he was married to in the mid-60s, and their compositions form the backbone of several albums of the time.
In 1972, Masekela returned to London with Ntshoko, Willis and Eddie Gomez and recorded Home Is Where The Music Is with fellow South African Dudu Pukwana. He then stepped in as trumpeter for Fela Kuti's group, and while on tour in Lagos, met Hedzoleh Soundz and began playing with them. “I was happy to return to Africa, to get back to the energy there, where you don't have to struggle so much to get people to listen,” he told De Ledesma. “Playing with Hedzoleh was like my musical education all over again. It felt like for the first time in a long while I was playing the music of where I'd come from, only it was fuller rhythmically, more percussive.”
Masekela did not return to South Africa until after the fall of Apartheid, but in the early 1980s he set up a recording studio in neighbouring Botswana, and in 1985 founded the International School of Music there. His 1987 single “Bring Him Back Home" became an anthem for the campaign to free Nelson Mandela, and when he finally returned to South Africa in the early 1990s, he explored the mbaqanga style. His autobiography Still Grazing: The Musical Journey Of Hugh Masekela was published in 2004. In 2008 he announced he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer but he continued being active in music. The Jazz Epistles reunited in 2016, bringing Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim together for the first time in 60 years for a concert at Johannesburg’s Emperors Palace commemorating 40 years since the Soweto uprising in 1976.