[Marxism] Hugh Masekela, Trumpeter and Anti-Apartheid Activist, Dies at 78
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Tue Jan 23 12:48:05 MST 2018
NY Times, Jan. 23, 2018
Hugh Masekela, Trumpeter and Anti-Apartheid Activist, Dies at 78
By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO
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
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
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 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.”
Throughout his time in exile, Mr. Masekela remained committed to seeing
democracy implemented in his home country. His son, Sal Masekela, noted
in a statement that “despite the open arms of many countries, for 30
years he refused to take citizenship anywhere else on this earth”
because of his belief “that the pure evil of a systematic racist
oppression could and would be crushed.”
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.
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
“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.
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
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
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.
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
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