Hugh Masekela Biography

South African jazz composer, singer, and trumpet player
Masekela fused American jazz music with South African song styles, creating his own genre of music appreciated by jazz and world music fans alike.

One of the earliest musicians to leave South Africa, he led a diaspora of African musicians to South African jazz and world acclaim.

April 4, 1939; Witbank, South Africa
Also known as:
Hugh Ramopolo Masekela (full name) Member of:
The Jazz Epistles Principal recordings
albums (solo): Trumpet Africane, 1962; Americanization of Ooga Booga, 1966; The Emancipation of Hugh Masekela, 1966; Grr, 1966; Hugh Masekela’s Latest, 1967; Lasting Impressions of Hugh Masekela, 1968; Masekela, 1968; The Promise of a Future, 1968; Home Is Where the Music Is, 1972; I’m Not Afraid, 1973; Masekela Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz, 1973 (with Hedzoleh Soundz); The Boy’s Doin’ It, 1975; Colonial Man, 1976; Melody Maker, 1977; Main Event, 1978 (with Herb Alpert); Technobush, 1984 (with Kalahari Band); Waiting for the Rain, 1985; Tomorrow, 1986; Uptownship, 1988; Beatin’ Aroun’ de Bush, 1992; Hugh Masekela and Union of South Africa, 1994 (with Union of South Africa); Reconstruction, 1994; Stimela, 1994; Johannasburg, 1995; Black to the Future, 1998; Note of Life, 1999; Sixty, 2000; Live at the B.B.C., 2002; Time, 2002; Umoja: Spirit of Togetherness, 2002; Revival, 2005; Pola, 2008.

albums (with the Jazz Epistles): Jazz Epistle Verse 1, 1960; Jazz in Africa, Vol. 1: Jazz Epistles, 1994.

writings of interest: Still Grazing, 2004.

The Life
Born during the early days of World War II, Hugh Ramopolo Masekela (hyew ma-seh-KEHlah) spent his first six years in a town alive with the sounds of wedding choirs and brass bands, and the radios and gramophones in his neighbors’ homes played American jazz. Masekela heard percussion music in the boots issued to coal-mine workers and street sweepers, who danced in them on the streets and in the parks. Masekela’s grandmother ran a shebeen, an illegal bar where black South Africans gathered to drink liquor during the apartheid-era prohibition of alcohol for blacks. At the shebeen, he heard migrant workers sing the sad folk and traditional songs of their many ethnic homelands.

In the 1950’s, Masekela attended St. Peter’s Boarding School, in Alexandra Township, run by Father Trevor Huddleston, who sponsored Masekela’s first band, called the Huddleston Jazz Band.

Masekela went on to play for the African Jazz and Variety touring show in several Southern African cities. In 1960 Masekela had formal music study at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City.

Dizzy Gillespie, Theolonious Monk, Harry Belafonte, and fellow South African Miriam Makeba were among the successful musicians who influenced and supported Masekela in those days. During his life, he was married three times, once to Makeba, and he is the father of three children.

The Music
Masekela performed in recording sessions for numerous jazz musicians, eventually recording his own arrangements and compositions. As a soloist and bandleader, he recorded twenty albums between 1966 and 2007 with several record labels, including his own Chisa label. He enjoyed a long and successful career performing and opening for musicians Stevie Wonder, Herb Alpert and Belafonte.

After a rigorous schedule of traveling and touring throughout the world, he returned to South Africa in 1991. Though he started as a jazz musician, his music reflects many of the influences, songs, and sounds of his early days in the streets and the township.

Early Works.
In 1958 Masekela created orchestrations and played in the orchestra for the musical King Kong (1959). In 1959 he moved to Capetown and joined the trio Jazz Epistles headed by Abdulla Ibrahim, then known as Dollar Brand. In 1960 the album Jazz Epistle Verse I was released by Gallo Records.

In the United States, he played trumpet on several jazz recordings, including The Many Voices of Miriam Makeba, and he eventually recorded his first feature album Trumpet Africaine.

In 1964 he formed a quartet and added vocals that expressed his many childhood influences and memories. With this hybrid sound and his own band, he released the album Americanization of Ooga Booga. Favorable reviews noted that Gillespie, John Coltrane, and Freddy Hubbard had influenced Masekela, but the original sound of “township bop” was quickly becoming Masekela’s trademark.

After television appearances and the establishment of his own record label Chisa, Masekela released the instrumental single “Grazin’ in the Grass,” a number-one hit in 1968, bolstering Masekela and his new sound into the mainstream of jazz music.

Graceland Tour.
After the touring and recording years of the 1970’s, Masekela moved to Botswana, a neighboring country to South Africa.

There, he started the Botswana International School of Music with Khabi Mngoma. Nevertheless, Masekela was forced to leave Botswana in 1985 after a massacre by the South African Defense Force killed close friends in a political raid. In 1987 Masekela persuaded Paul Simon to put together a South African touring band for Simon’s album Graceland. The Graceland Tour featured South African musicians, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Makeba, and musicians from Masekela’s band. The tour created awareness about the apartheid oppression in South Africa, although there was much controversy about Simon’s work in South Africa during an international ban on performances there.

In 1988 the musical Sarafina! (1987) opened on Broadway after a long and successful run at Johannesburg’s famous Market Theatre. The musical portrayed the Soweto uprising in 1976 from the perspective of a young black girl, and it featured Masekela both as a composer and as a performer.

Cast members were brought from South Africa’s townships, and Masekela supervised the young performers for two years as the show toured the United States. In 1992 the film version, starring Whoopi Goldberg, was released. The Broadway musical received five Tony Award nominations, and it became yet another milestone in the South African awareness projects for which Masekela was becoming well known. Singers from the cast were also featured on his album Uptownship, which soared to the top of the jazz charts.

Still Grazing.
After returning to South Africa in 1991, Masekela’s retrospective albums became his focus. Still Grazing was released in 2004, and it featured hits such as “Grazin’ in the Grass” and “Stimela (Coal Train)” along with tracks compiled from six albums released during Masekela’s formative years of 1966 to 1974. The album’s release coincided with the autobiographical book of the same title, and Masekela has continued releasing retrospective recordings and touring in and out of South Africa with hisown band and other South African musical acts.

Musical Legacy
Masekela launched an entire generation of South African musicians onto the international stage, a contribution as important as his own compositions and performances. From the day he received Louis Armstrong’s secondhand trumpet in a charity campaign to send instruments to South African youth, and through his years playing with internationally known musicians and in a variety of musical styles, Masekela developed his own brand of world music, sometimes known as “township jazz.” Masekela was featured in the film Amandla! (2002), a documentary that demonstrated the power of music during the apartheid years. The struggle, as it is called among South Africans, was kept alive and eventually ended in part because of audiences being brought to awareness of South Africa’s injustices and horrendous racism through the music of Masekela and that of the musicians he influenced, mentored, and copied. ¶