Hugh Masekela, Trumpeter and Anti-Apartheid Activist, Dies at 78
By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLOJAN. 23, 2018
Hugh Masekela performing “Songs of Migration” in Johannesburg in February 2010. Joao Silva/The New York Times
Hugh Masekela, a South African trumpeter, singer and activist whose music became symbolic of the country’s anti-apartheid movement, even as he spent three decades in exile, died on Tuesday in Johannesburg. He was 78.
His death was confirmed by Dreamcatcher, a communications agency that represented him.
Mr. Masekela came to the forefront of his country’s music scene in the 1950s, when he became a pioneer of South African jazz as a member of the Jazz Epistles, a bebop sextet that included the pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and other future stars. After a move to the United States in 1960, he won international acclaim and carried the mantle of his country’s freedom struggle.
His biggest hit was “Grazing in the Grass,” a peppy instrumental from 1968 with a twirling trumpet hook and a jangly cowbell rhythm. In the 1980s, as the struggle against apartheid hit a fever pitch, he worked often with fellow expatriate musicians, and with others from different African nations. On songs like “Stimela (Coal Train),” “Mace and Grenades” and the anthem “Mandela (Bring Him Back Home),” he played spiraling, plump-toned trumpet lines and sang of fortitude and resisting oppression in a gravelly tenor, landing somewhere between a storyteller’s incantation and a folk singer’s croon.
In the 1970s and ’80s, he collaborated with musicians across sub-Saharan Africa, constantly expanding his style to accommodate a range of traditions.
In 1986, Mr. Masekela founded the Botswana International School of Music, a nonprofit organization aimed at educating young African musicians. The next year, he played with Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the “Graceland” tour, which was not allowed in South Africa but made stops in nearby countries. On that tour, Mr. Masekela often performed “Mandela (Bring Him Back Home),” a hit song demanding justice for Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned on Robben Island at the time.
Reviewing a 1989 performance by Mr. Masekela in New York City, Peter Watrous wrote in The New York Times: “Mr. Masekela, playing the cornet, contrasted short melodies against bristling long lines that flowed with the authority and phrasing reminiscent of the trumpeter Clifford Brown. When he sang, in the hoarse shout of the township music from Johannesburg, the band percolated behind him. The show ended with a tribute to Nelson Mandela, which had the audience both dancing and holding fists in the air.”
Mr. Masekela performing at the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan in August 2007. Julien Jourdes for The New York Times
Mr. Masekela tended to emphasize the breadth of the musical tradition that inspired him. “I was marinated in jazz, and I was seasoned in music from home,” he said in a 2009 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “Song is the literature of South Africa.”
He added, “There’s no political rally that ever happened in South Africa without singing being the main feature.”
Ramopolo Hugh Masekela was born on April 4, 1939, in Witbank, South Africa, a coal-mining town near Johannesburg. His father, Thomas Selema Masekela, was a health inspector and noted sculptor; his mother, Pauline Bowers Masekela, was a social worker.
As a young child, Mr. Masekela was raised primarily by his grandmother, who ran an illegal bar for mine workers. “One of the great things also about Witbank was that all these people brought their different music and their different stories about where they came from,” he said of the miners. “As a little kid, I hung out with them in the backyard and the kitchen and I knew all about their countries.”
When he was 12, he entered St. Peter’s Secondary School, a boarding school in Rosettenville, closer to Johannesburg. By that point he had already begun to pursue music, singing in groups on the street and learning piano in private lessons.
He grew infatuated with the trumpet in 1950, after seeing Kirk Douglas in the film “Young Man With a Horn,” based on a novel inspired by the life of the trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke.
A 1954 photograph titled “Hugh Masekela With the Trumpet From Satchmo,” by the South African photographer Jürgen Schadeberg. The trumpet was a gift from Louis Armstrong. Jürgen Schadeberg
At St. Peter’s, he was encouraged to pursue music by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, an influential anti-apartheid advocate and organizer. He took lessons from Uncle Sauda, an esteemed local trumpeter, and quickly mastered the basics. Archbishop Huddleston established the Huddleston Jazz Band, a youth orchestra, partly to give Mr. Masekela an opportunity to play, and later, during a trip to the United States, he met Louis Armstrong, who had a trumpet sent to the band. The instrument made its way into Mr. Masekela’s hands.
By 1956, Mr. Masekela was performing in dance bands around Johannesburg and in cities across the country. In 1959, he played in the pit band of the hit musical “King Kong,” with music composed by the seminal South African pianist Todd Matshikiza.
The next year he joined Abdullah Ibrahim (then known as Dollar Brand) and four other upstart instrumentalists in the Jazz Epistles, South Africa’s first bebop band of note. With a heavy, driving pulse and warm, arcing melodies, their music was distinctly South African, even as its swing rhythms and flittering improvisations reflected affinities with American jazz.
“There had never been a group like the Epistles in South Africa,” Mr. Masekela said in his 2004 autobiography, “Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela,” written with D. Michael Cheers. “Our tireless energy, complex arrangements, tight ensemble play, languid slow ballads and heart-melting, hymnlike dirges won us a following, and soon we were breaking all attendance records in Cape Town.”
The group recorded just one album, which was printed in a run of 500 and eventually became a kind of Holy Grail for collectors.
After the so-called Sharpeville massacre in March 1960, in which 69 protesters were killed by police officers in a township outside Johannesburg, the government banned public gatherings of more than 10 black people. This forced groups like the Jazz Epistles to take their performances underground; Mr. Masekela and Mr. Ibrahim soon chose to leave the country.
A poster advertising a Hugh Masekela concert at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 2004.
In 1960, Mr. Masekela moved briefly to London, where he studied at the Guildhall School of Music, before the singers Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba helped him secure a scholarship to attend the Manhattan School of Music. He studied classical trumpet there for four years.
In 1962, he recorded his debut album, “Trumpet Africaine,” for the Mercury label. He followed it in 1964 with “Grrr,” also on Mercury. That album — which featured the trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, a veteran of the Jazz Epistles who had also relocated to New York — included a number of Masekela originals that reflected his devotion to his musical roots. On tunes like “Sharpeville,” the effortless churn of the rhythms and the thrumming harmonies reflected the influence of marabi, an instrumental style developed in the early 20th century by workers in the townships outside Johannesburg.
During this time, Mr. Masekela often wrote instrumental arrangements for Ms. Makeba. Their partnership turned romantic, and the couple married in 1964. The marriage ended in divorce two years later, but the two later continued to collaborate.
Mr. Masekela is survived by a son, Sal Masekela, from his relationship with Jessie Marie Lapierre; a daughter, Pula Twala, from his relationship with Motshidisi Jennifer Ndamse; and his sisters, Elaine and Barbara Masekela. Three other marriages — to Chris Calloway, Jabu Mbatha and Elinam Cofie — also ended in divorce.
In 1964, Mr. Masekela and Stewart Levine, a fellow student at the Manhattan School, established the independent label Chisa, named for the Zulu word for “burn.” The two would remain lifelong collaborators and friends.
The label struck gold in 1968 when Mr. Masekela released the album “The Promise of a Future,” featuring “Grazing in the Grass.” With a sanguine two-chord hook, the song registered as a beatific ode to summer; it was released in May and hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in mid-July.
Mr. Masekela, left, with the Nigerian singer Femi Kuti during the opening ceremony of the World Cup in June 2010 at Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg. Alexander Joe/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
By that time, Mr. Masekela had begun to sing; on other tracks on the album, including “Vuca (Wake Up)” and “Bajabula Bonke (The Healing Song),” he sang in Zulu, sounding tones of uplift and resistance.
But alongside success came overindulgence. Mr. Masekela developed a dependence on alcohol early in his career, and by the early 1970s he was addicted to cocaine, as well. His substance abuse began to inhibit his work. “No recording company was interested in me,” he told the music historian Gwen Ansell last year.
He sought solace on his home continent. “For me, songs come like a tidal wave,” he said. “At this low point, for some reason, the tidal wave that whooshed in on me came all the way from the other side of the Atlantic: from Africa, from home.”
In the 1970s, Mr. Masekela toured sub-Sarahan Africa and began a partnership with the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, who had recently pioneered the genre known as Afrobeat. He also worked with the exiled South African saxophonist Dudu Pukwana and began fronting the Ghanaian group Hedzoleh Soundz. He recorded two albums with the group, “Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz” and “I Am Not Afraid,” and toured the United States with them in 1974.
Partly thanks to Mr. Kuti’s influence, Mr. Masekela began to record longer, more immersive tracks, using electronic effects and letting grooves linger for minutes on end. That style is heard to perhaps its greatest effect on “The Boy’s Doin’ It,” which Mr. Masekela recorded in Lagos with Nigerian musicians in 1975.
When he kicked his addictions in the 1990s, Mr. Masekela established the Musicians and Artists Assistance Program of South Africa, to help South Africans battle substance abuse.
In 1980, Mr. Masekela returned to Africa. He settled in Botswana, where he set up a mobile recording studio and recorded two albums. In 1987, he traveled to London to record the album “Tomorrow,” which included “Mandela (Bring Him Back Home).”
Mr. Masekela moved back to South Africa in 1990, the year Mandela was released from prison. He continued to record and tour around the world into his mid-70s.
In 2010, Mr. Masekela was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in gold, South Africa’s highest medal of honor. Since 2014, Soweto has been the site of an annual Hugh Masekela Heritage Festival, with the stated aim “to restore our South African heritage and to uplift the local artisans of Soweto.”