Hugh Masekela, who died this week at the age of 78 after a battle with prostate cancer, was an outspoken musician and activist whose performances were packed with thrilling improvisations of a range of musical styles interspersed with cultural and political commentary.
He often spoke of the cultural crisis on the continent. “In 20 years from now, when people ask my grandchildren who they are, they will say ‘it is rumoured that we used to be Africans, long ago,’” Masekela told the Guardian (UK) newspaper in 2013. He felt so strongly about the issue that he often refused to take pictures with women wearing weaves.
Speaking in Nairobi in 2011, Masekela said he and Miriam Makeba, to whom he was married for two years from 1964, earned international acclaim because they stuck to their musical roots and didn’t imitate the Western sound.
In his autobiography, Still Grazing, he says in the early days of his career, he tried to sound like American bebop trumpeters like Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown.
The advice from the legendary trumpeter Miles Davis was: “You are just going be a statistic if you play jazz. But if you put some of the stuff you have from Africa, you’ll be different from everybody.”
The trumpeter, vocalist and songwriter regaled his fans in Nairobi on the several occasions that he performed here, with humorous tales while performing the songs that made him one of the most successful African artistes of all time.
Bra (brother) Hugh, as he was affectionately known, was a pivotal figure of the anti-apartheid movement, spending 30 years in exile, and maintaining a hectic international tour schedule well into his 70s. He was once asked how long he intended to continue playing and touring: “As long as I’m able to. It’s far more enjoyable than sitting on the porch and watching the sunset.”
Right from his early days in exile in the US in the 1960s, learning music at the feet of American greats like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, he remained an advocate of African musical heritage. Masekela consistently reminded journalists and fans that he was not simply a jazz artist, but an African musician. His style combined jazz and funk with South African township rhythms to create a distinctive brand of music that remained his identity throughout his career.
He embraced a diversity of influences, from playing on some of the earliest recordings by Bob Marley and the Wailers in the late 1960s to his association with Nigerian legend, Fela Kuti, that led to a dalliance with Afrobeat in the 70s.
In 1974, he helped organise a three-day music festival in Zaire (now DRC) headlined by James Brown as a prelude to the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman world heavyweight boxing fight.
While living in exile in the US in 1972, Masekela took a pilgrimage across Africa, stopping in Guinea, where Miriam Makeba was being hosted by President Sekou Toure. His next destination was Kinshasa, in what was then Zaire, where he lived for about 10 months and made music with the two giants of rumba, Franco and Tabu Ley.
It was after this stay in Congo that Masekela relocated to Nigeria and spent a whole month playing with Fela’s Africa 70 band. What followed was a West African tour whose first stop was in Accra, Ghana where he met Hedzoleh Sounds. Masekela played with the band for three months at the famous Napoleon Club in Accra and together they recorded two albums, Introducing the Hedzoleh Soundz in 1973 and I am not Afraid in 1974.
Masekela was introduced to a whole new generation of music fans around the world in the 1980s when he recorded Bring him back Home, a liberation song in anticipation of the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. That was also the decade when he played on Paul Simon’s Graceland tour along other South African musicians, notably Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Masekela had a long association with both Mandela and his former wife, Winnie. Masekela’s mother was the head social worker when Winnie was doing her fieldwork as a young woman in Johannesburg’s Alexandra Townships.
In 1984, when Winnie was banished to a remote town in South Africa, Masekela’s father went to visit despite restrictions from the apartheid government. On Masekela’s 46th birthday in 1985, he received a letter from Nelson Mandela that was smuggled out of prison. The letter wished him well with his recording projects and a musical school he had started in Botswana, where he lived for four and-a-half years.
So much passion
“I was intensely moved by the fact that a man who has been imprisoned for over 20 years could have so much passion and regard for the work that was being done by some musicians in a small town in Botswana. It brought tears to my eyes,” wrote Masekela.
It is from this emotion that his timeless hit Bring him back Home was written and recorded with his band, Kalahari, in London as part of the album called Tomorrow. When Mandela was released in 1990, the song was played as background music on many of his visits to the large cities of US during television broadcasts.
Every time you hear the trumpet on his signature tune Grazing in the Grass it serves as a reminder of just how fresh the music sounds half a century since it put the name Masekela on the map by topping the US charts for three weeks in 1968. Another Masekela staple is Stimela, that powerful anthem that references the train that carried migrant workers into the mines in Johannesburg.
Masekela was born in Witbank, a mining town in eastern South Africa. Most of his childhood was spent in a drinking den watching his grandmother play hide-and-seek with the police because the apartheid laws prohibited Africans from consuming alcohol.
“I didn’t turn out too badly for a boy born in a shebeen,” Masekela quipped during a show at the Carnivore Restaurant in Nairobi in 2011. Of course, his battles with the excesses of life are well documented. He started drinking at the age of 13 and had become an addict by 21, a struggle that he battled with for the next 40 years.
After successfully receiving treatment, he used his experience to start a project to assist South African musicians who had similarly sunk into substance abuse.
Masekela’s love for the trumpet was sparked by watching the 1950 film Young Man With a Horn and he was given his first instrument at the age of 14 by anti-apartheid priest Trevor Huddleston. He and other pupils, including Jonas Gwangwa, formed the Huddleston Jazz Band. The story of the young prodigy eventually reached his idol, US trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who sent one of his horns to Masekela through Father Huddleston.
He released 44 albums in a career spanning more than 60 years with his last recording, No Borders, released in 2016 summing up some of the highlights of a tumultuous life. The image on the sleeve of the album was that of a map of Africa from 1590, long before boundaries were drawn up. The message is deliberate: the boundaries between African people are artificial barriers drawn up by colonial powers.
This was his first album in five years and arguably one of the most expressive set of songs that he has recorded in the recent past. Typically, the 15 songs on the album transcend a wide scope of musical styles: township jazz, House music, Afro beat, rap, there’s even a rumba song, harking back to his days in Kinshasa.
No Borders features an impressive list of guest appearances, including Zimbabwean Oliver Mtukudzi in the song Tapera that talks about the devastating effects of HIV AIDS in Zimbabwe. Congo Women, featuring South African artist Kabomo Vilakazi and hot new Congolese star Tresor Riziki, comes complete with the trademark rumba climax, known in the Congolese music as sebene.
Exile in US
Masekela also recorded a new version of Been such a long Time Gone that he originally did with the Hedzoleh Sounds during his years in Accra. The lyrics express the feeling of coming back to Africa from exile in US, without the chance to go back home to the country of his birth.
The instrumental piece Makeba is a tribute to the woman who was his wife for two years while In an Age is the only song that that he recorded with his son, the American TV presenter, Sal Masekela aka Alekesam (Masekela spelled backwards). The passing of this colossus of African music marks the end of an era and while his famous trumpet has gone silent, Bra Hugh’s music will play on for generations to come.