“My biggest obsession is to show Africans and the world who the people of Africa really are.” These are the words of Hugh Masekela, who succumbed to prostate cancer on 23 January 2018 after a protracted battle that began in 2008. He was undoubtedly one of the most talented jazz musicians to ever take to the stage, and he enjoyed a stellar career spanning six decades and 44 albums. But it was his abiding love for Africa and its myriad cultures, and his unshakeable stance against injustice that truly set him apart from his peers.
Born to a health inspector father and social worker mother in Witbank, Mpumalanga, Masekela was largely raised by his grandmother, who ran an illegal bar for miners. He was inspired to take up his trademark instrument after seeing the ’50s film Young Man with a Horn, which features a character modelled on American jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke.
Encouraged by the anti-apartheid clergyman Trevor Huddleston, Masekela went on to join Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim), Kippie Moeketsi, Makhaya Ntshoko and Johnny Gertze to form the revolutionary Jazz Epistles and participate in South Africa’s first successful musical, the award-winning King Kong.
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Forced to flee the increasing brutality of the apartheid regime, he sought refuge in the United Kingdom, and then the USA, where he developed his burgeoning talent with the help of American jazz legends, such as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, from whom he famously received his first trumpet.
After being advised by Davis to abandon any thoughts of imitating his Stateside heroes and focus on cultivating his own sound, Masekela embraced a diversity of influences and embarked on a musical pilgrimage through Africa.
He earned worldwide acclaim after Grazing in the Grass topped the US charts in 1968. This led to him working with the likes of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Nigerian impresario Fela Kuti, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and ex-wife Miriam Makeba during a storied career propelled by a burning ambition to showcase African culture.
Though Masekela found mainstream success, his instrument took on political significance early on his career and he remained an outspoken and vehement opponent of apartheid and oppression. He worked closely with political activist Harry Belafonte to reflect the harsh realities of apartheid South Africa and seldom passed on the opportunity to attack the architects of injustice or shirk the mantle of the struggle.
Masekela’s music reflected his politics and in 1987, “Bra Hugh” created a global stir with his rousing anti-apartheid anthem Bring Back Nelson Mandela.
In the Seventies and Eighties, he collaborated with musicians across Africa, constantly evolving and expanding his style to accommodate a range of continental traditions and styles. Even after his return to a new South Africa in 1990, after having lived and worked in the USA and Botswana, Masekela continued to be a vocal critic of political events in the country and around the world.
“My father’s life was the definition of activism and resistance. His belief was that the pure evil of a systematic racist oppression could and would be crushed. He would continue to fight,” said Selema Mabena Masekela.
As can be expected, given that he continued to delight global audiences with live performances well into his seventies, Masekela was a frequent traveller. An SAA Voyager Platinum card-holder and a long-time Gold status member, he was a South Africa-based Star Alliance ambassador and worked with SAA as a national flag carrier. “Whether I am flying home or to a concert, with SAA and Star Alliance, I am always treated like a VIP – the way I like to travel,” said Masekela.
He was the subject of a 2016 Star Alliance marketing campaign entitled: The Way I Like to Travel, which promoted seamless travel through benefits the airline alliance offers its Gold Status members. Masekela improvised an instrumental as an interpretation of the “sound” of Gold Status in a short film created for the campaign.
“It was a great pleasure and honour to have Hugh participate in our special advocate campaign with SAA. These campaigns, run jointly with our member carriers, are designed to illustrate the global benefits the Star Alliance network provides to international passengers,” says Star Alliance Marketing Director Mark Davies.
“With Hugh’s campaign, we wanted to remind frequent travellers how success in your field enables you to fly in comfort, and be pampered across the globe. Hugh fully embraced this concept within the highly emotive short film we jointly captured with him playing his favourite instrument.”
With Masekela’s passing, Africa has been stripped of a great cultural asset, but though the trumpets may have fallen silent, the indefatigable musician and activist will live on through his immense body of work, activism and in every note played on the instrument he made his own.
This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Sawubona.