Monday, February 05, 2018

Hugh Masekela: Legendary South African Musician and Anti-apartheid Activist
The jazz trumpeter and musical pioneer campaigned against racism in exile before returning to South Africa in the Mandela era to continue his career and charity work

The Independent Online

“I lived for music since I could think,” said South African trumpeter, composer, singer and flugelhorn player Hugh Masekela in 2009. 

Masekela, who has died aged 78, was born in the KwaGuqa Township, Witbank, to Thomas Selema Masekela, a health inspector and sculptor, and Pauline Bowers Masekela, a social worker.

He grew up largely in the care of his grandmother who ran a shebeen or speakeasy. Black South Africans were banned from drinking alcohol at the time.

Masekela began his musical education at the age of five. He started with piano and was a talented singer. But at the age of 13 he watched Kirk Douglas in the 1950 film Young Man With A Horn and decided the trumpet was for him too. He was supported in his decision by the British anti-apartheid activist Trevor Huddleston, Anglican minister to the townships. Huddleston gave Masekela his first trumpet and found him his first teacher. Not long afterwards, Masekela and his schoolmates formed the Huddleston Jazz Band, South Africa’s first youth orchestra.

In 1956, Masekela went professional with Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz Revue. His music of the time reflected the broken and divided South Africa in which he lived and touched the hearts of many of his fellow countrymen. However, in 1960, after the Sharpville massacre, Masekela could not see his future in South Africa anymore. Once again Archbishop Huddleston came to Masekela’s assistance.

Together with John Dankworth and Yehudi Menuhin, he helped Masekela get a place at London’s Guildhall School of Music. Masekela left South Africa at the age of 21, not knowing he was beginning what would be a 30-year exile.

From the Guildhall, Masekela went on to the Manhattan School of Music to study classical trumpet, graduating in 1964, the year he married singer Miriam Makeba.

He’d already released his debut album, Trumpet Africaine.

Masekela’s marriage to Makeba lasted only two years (he would go on to marry and divorce three more times) but while Masekela didn’t seem lucky in love, his career went from strength to strength.

“Up, Up and Away” (1967) and “Grazing in the Grass” (1968) were huge hits in the States – the first one cleaned up at the 1968 Grammys in categories including record of the year and song of the year. “Grazing in the Grass” reached No 1 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

For the most part, Masekela continued to play as part of various ensembles, making guest appearances with The Byrds, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon. His 1987 song “Bring Him Back Home”, calling for the liberation of Nelson Mandela, became an anti-apartheid anthem.

During the 1980s, Masekela turned increasingly to his African roots for inspiration. In 1986, he founded the Botswana International School of Music, a nonprofit organisation for young African musicians. Speaking of the influence of his home continent, he said, “I’ve got to where I am in life not because of something I brought to the world but through something I found – the wealth of African culture” and “my biggest obsession is to show Africans and the world who the people of African really are”.

Though he was offered citizenship by several other nations, Masekela never gave up on South Africa and in 1990, the year Nelson Mandela was finally liberated, Masekela returned home. Back in South Africa at last, Masekela was also able to take control of the drug and alcohol addictions that had plagued him since his youth in his grandmother’s shebeen. 

In 2008, Masekela was diagnosed with cancer of the prostate. The diagnosis did not stop him working. In 2010, he performed first at a huge concert that opened the Fifa World Cup South Africa, and in 2014 he appeared on the cover of Forbes Life Africa. He told the magazine: “I didn’t go into it [music] for notoriety or fame. I just went into music because I love it.”

All the same, he courted notoriety in 2015 when he announced that he would not have his picture taken with black women whose hair was not natural, spawning #WeaveMustFall.

He was a director of the Lunchbox Fund, a non-profit foundation providing daily meals to schoolchildren in Soweto’s township schools. He also established the Musicians and Artists Assistance Program of South Africa, to aid South Africans battling substance abuse. Masekela’s lifelong contribution to music was celebrated in 2017 when he was given an honorary doctorate by the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Masekela’s death, said South African President Jacob Zuma, was “an immeasurable loss to the music industry and to the country at large”.

In 2010, Masekela recalled accompanying Paul Simon to Russia – racism, it seemed, had followed him there.

Speaking to The Independent, he said: “We took a train from Helsinki to Leningrad where we spent a fortnight eating chicken, cheap caviar and fish. In Moscow, the security was militaristic and the taxi drivers and most citizens called The Patrice Lumumba University [founded to help students from developing countries] ‘The Zoo’.”

He added: “We stayed at the Hotel Rossiya next to the Kremlin in Moscow and we had a near fist-fight because the maid refused to clean my room because of my complexion.”

Masakela is survived by a son, television presenter Selema ‘Sal’ Masekela and a daughter, Pula Twala.

Hugh Ramopolo Masekela, born 4 April 1939, died 23 January 2018

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