Remembering Hugh Masekela

The series black-and-white photos was entitled “Hugh Masekela With the Trumpet From Satchmo,” as captured by South African photographer Jürgen Schadeberg in 1954. It documented what would become a pround moment in music. A South African minister who was deported due to his anti-apartheid views, Reverend Trevor Huddleston encountered jazz legend Louis Armstrong on a trip through the United States in the early 1950s. He told Armstrong about a South African youth orchestra he had started called the Huddleston Jazz Band and Satchmo promptly shipped a trumpet back to South Africa, where the instrument wound up in the hands the orchestra’s young trumpeter, Hugh Masekela. That collection joyous photos (and others like this supreme snap Masekela and horn in the South African townships that was the cover for his 2004 autobiography, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey Hugh Masekela) captured a moment that in a subtle way signaled the passing a torch, with the music African-Americans roving back to Africa.

Trumpeter, composer, flügelhorn player, singer, and staunch anti-apartheid political activist, Masekela went on to have a formidable musical career that spanned a half-century, drawing to a close as he passed away from prostate cancer this week. Masekela’s arc included topping the charts in America, serving as his country’s great musical ambassador (even while in exile for 30 years), and becoming one the biggest stars in Africa, appearing alongside the likes Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, the Byrds, and Paul Simon. With a tone as bright as a sunbeam, a vocal delivery that imparted great levity, and an underlying sense unity that brings all music together, Masekela fused the township rhythms mbaqanga with jazz, soul, st pop, Afro-Cuban, and later disco and electro-funk into a distinct blend. But Masekela’s music imparted both a sense lightness as well as an iron resolve resistance.

Born in a coal-mining town outside Johannesburg, South Africa, Masekela’s early musical education came courtesy a grandmother who ran a shebeen, an illicit bar serving colored South Africans (who were forbidden to drink alcohol during that era apartheid). Masekela enjoyed success in the late ’50s as a member the country’s first all-black bebop group the Jazz Epistles, alongside pianist and future jazz star Dollar Brand (later known as Abdullah Ibrahim). But the violent Sharpeville massacre in March 1960 (wherein South African police opened fire on a crowd Africans, killing 69), made such a band untenable. In response, the government subsequently banned gatherings more than ten black people, which made playing concerts impossible.

Masekela fled his homeland for the next 30 years, yet never renounced his citizenship, hoping to one day return to South Africa. He relocated to London but soon found himself in New York City, where with the help Harry Belafonte and South African pop star (and his future first wife) Miriam Makeba, Masekela wound up with a scholarship at the Manhattan School Music. In New York City, Masekela fell under the sway bebop and its luminaries: Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and trumpeter Miles Davis. As Masekela once recalled on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” he received succinct advice from Miles about finding his own voice on the horn: “Nobody knows the s*** that you know and if you can put that s*** in your s***, then we’re going to be listening.”

As an African expat living in the U.S., Masekela was in a unique position to bridge the two lands through his music, which also meant bearing the brunt injustices from both countries. With his 1968 album The Promise a Future, Masekela stumbled upon a smash hit with the lilting “Grazing in the Grass.” But as that album revealed, Masekela was unafraid to have harsh reality abut pop fantasy, including numbers sung in Zulu like “Vuca (Wake Up)” and the smoldering soul jazz “Bajabula Bonke (The Healing Song).” And he followed up “Grazing” with the blunt “Mace and Grenades,” a song that tackled the injustices both South Africa as well as his new adopted country, shouting the chorus: “I’m in jail in here / I’m in jail out there.”

Shadowing such success was a growing alcohol-and-drug addiction, making Masekela’s life and career itinerant and intermittent, be it marriages or record labels. The music flourished and remained buoyant, though, the bright melodies Masekela always underpinned by a solid polyrhythmic foundation, a sense beat that made him a touchstone for hip-hop producers and dance DJs alike in the generations to come. Mid-’70s albums like Masekela Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz, I Am Not Afraid, and The Boy’s Doin’ It were made when the trumpeter left the U.S. for West Africa, where he fell in with Nigerian Afrobeat master Fela Kuti. And much like Kuti, he crafted a sound that implored your body to move while the lyrics fered up messages empowerment and defiance. A sense Pan-Africanism arose, as the title track on The Boy’s Doin’ It put it: “The boy’s doin’ it in the jungle, doin’ it in Hollywood / he’s doin’ it in Zaire … he’s doin’ it in Alabama.”

When the apartheid government South Africa again brutally murdered innocent children in a 1976 tragedy known as the Soweto Uprising, Masekela again put such injustice to music with “Soweto Blues,” with its unflinching chorus: “When the children were being shot/ where were you?” Thanks to Makeba’s cover the song, it became an international hit as well as a rail against the institution apartheid, as was Masekela’s “Bring Him Home (Nelson Mandela),” a rallying cry disguised as pop chorus. Throughout the decade, he continued to inspire, from performing as part Paul Simon’s Graceland tour to founding the Botswana International School Music, allowing young African children to also study music. With the release Nelson Mandela in 1990, Masekela returned to South Africa, his music having helped effect the most pround change imaginable.