He was born in Witbank, South Africa in 1939. His father, a coal miner, had a wind-up gramophone and several records of American jazz musicians, which young Hugh became very fond of. He quickly took to music, learning how to play trumpet under Father Trevor Huddleson, an anti-apartheid activist, where he learned to play music on a trumpet donated by Louis Armstrong. He soon formed the ‘Jazz Epistles’, the first African group to record and LP in South Africa , who played an African hybrid of Be Bop music called ‘township bop’. After the deportation of Father Huddleston and the 1960 Sharpville Massacre, where 69 peaceful protesters were gunned down, Masekela left South Africa in 1960 for more than 30 years on a self-appointed exile from his racially divided homeland.
He first moved to London, where he backed artists such as the Byrds and Bob Marley, before he got a record deal in America, thanks in large part to the help of Miriam Makeba. Makeba, who he later briefly married, was another South African immigrant with whom he had performed in South Africa who had become a successful singer in America. After releasing several Albums in America, including his most famous, Grazing in the Grass, he re-found his roots and moved back to Africa.
After a pilgrimage to Zaire, he spent time with Fela Kuti in Nigeria, which is where he met Hedzoleh Soundz, a Ghanan band with whom he recorded 5 albums (check out the song Languta for a great example). After, he set up a school of music in Botswana, a country nearby to his homeland of South Africa, which helped and trained musicians who, like Masekela, had fled Apartheid for better opportunities. Later, his song Mandela (Bring Him Back Home) turned into an anthem for Nelson Mandela’s return to South Africa and the end of Apartheid.
With that, he could end his 30 year exile and finally return home. Since doing so, he has continued to record and tour all over the world, but he has also made a strong effort to improve the world around him. He has written songs about addiction and substance issues, something which troubled him during his exile, and has done a lot of work to help others who have had similar problems.
His home country of South Africa, however, has been Masekela’s main cause. He feels that there have been lasting social ramifications of the Apartheid regime, “It sort of limited our adventurism into who we are, into ourselves and what we have here. It does not disturb me, but the element that I’m most obsessed with, is the element that I wish every creative person to try and extract that.” Masekela has fought to explain the world from an African, specifically South African view. By doing so, he was not only boosting South African morale but explaining the cultural differences to the rest of the world.
The song Mace and Grenades from the album Still Grazing is a good example of this type of song. As the title infers, the song is about the rampant violence in South Africa. He sees everyday life and life in jail on the same level and wonders if the punishment is living in jail or living with Aperteid in South Africa. With all the dangers- he mentions .45s, bazookas, machine guns, bombs in addition to the ‘Mace & Grenades' - there is more danger and repression on the streets than behind bars. He hammers the point home by repeating, “I’m in jail out here, I’m in jail in there” highlighting how only in this unique country could such a choice be even considered, much less preferred.
Many of his songs, especially more recently, are more uplifting than eye-awakening, but as with the rest of his music, his songs on South Africa vary widely. To further demonstrate the range of his style, I would like to bring to your attention a song from his 1966 Album Grrr called, Zulu and the Mexican. In this time period, Masekela was just beginning his career in America. He spent a lot of time with artists like Miles Davis and Harry Belafonte who encouraged him to merge his jazz practices with his South African musical styles, such as the township bop. Those sentiments influenced him to create a hybrid of African, Jazz an Pop music.
In Zulu and the Mexian, you can hear the sharp, yet smooth tone of his flugelhorn. It has been described as “a charismatic blend of striking upper register lines, half valve effects, repetitive figures and phrases, with some note bending, slurs and tonal colors”. It is a very simple arrangement and the song maintains a light and airy attitude. However, his complicated, but logical solo is very expressive as well. He emits a tone that is simultaneously muted and radiant. It is nasally and understated but clear, beautiful, and inspiring at the same time.
I hope that you have enjoyed this little exploration into Hugh Masekela’s career and I hope that you continue the exploration into his music. All songs and albums are hyperlinked to Itunes store for purchasing or listening (though I suggest Lala.com or playlist.com to listen to the entire songs).