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The Father of South African Jazz - Hugh Masekela

Jan 14, 2021 08:00AM ● By Boitumelo Masihleho
hugh masekela

Hugh Ramapolo Masekela was born April 4, 1939, in the township of KwaGuqa in Witbank to a father who was a sculptor and the chief health inspector of Sharpeville township and a mother who was a social worker. Masekela took up playing the trumpet at the age of 14 after seeing the 1950 film Young Man with a Horn and was given his first trumpet by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, the anti-apartheid chaplain at St. Peter's Secondary School.

Masekela quickly mastered the instrument and began to play with other aspiring musicians in the Huddleston Jazz Band – South Africa’s first youth orchestra. In 1956, he joined the African Jazz Revue that was organized by British entrepreneur, Alfred Herbert, as an African Jazz and Variety show in South Africa’s Johannesburg Windmill Theatre. In 1958, Masekela joined The Manhattan Brothers, the most popular South African singing group at the time with members including Miriam Makeba who eventually became his first wife in 1964.


Masekela began to hone his signature, Afro-Jazz sound in the late 1950s where he notably performed in the 1959 musical King Kong, which was South Africa's first blockbuster theatrical success. Not long after gaining some recognition in his hometown from touring with the Manhattan Brothers and his performance in King Kong, Masekela, along with other recognized artists such as Abdullah Ibrahim and Kippie Moeketsi, formed South Africa’s first bebop band called Jazz Epistles. Through the late 1950s and early 1960s,  the band enjoyed their fair share of success by attracting audiences in record-breaking numbers during their performances in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Following the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, where 69 protestors were shot dead in Sharpeville by the apartheid police, Masekela moved to the United States. He attended the Manhattan School of Music in New York City, debuted his first album Trumpet Africaine in 1963, and recorded many songs including his 1968 number one hit “Grazing in the Grass." Masekela performed at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival alongside Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, The Who and Jimi Hendrix. 

Masekela traveled throughout Africa in the 1970s, playing in the band of popular Nigerian performer Fela Ransome-Kuti, and touring with the highlife band Hedzoleh Soundz. In the 1980s, he set up a mobile studio in Botswana, where he further developed his musical style using African mbaqanga strains. It was in 1987, Masekela released a hit single called "Bring Him Back Home" that became enormously popular and was tied to the anti-apartheid movement and the movement to free Nelson Mandela. 

Masekela was nominated for a Grammy Award three times, including a nomination for Best World Music Album for his 2012 album Jabulani, and one for Best Contemporary Pop Performance for the song "Grazing in the Grass.” Masekela joined Paul Simon’s “Graceland” world tour which featured other South African artists such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba in the late 1980s. Masekela returned to South Africa in the early 1990s and produced music for the musical Sarafina! In June 2010, he opened the FIFA Soccer World Cup Kick-Off Concert to a global audience and performed at the event’s Opening Ceremony in Soweto’s Soccer City. 

 In 2010, he received the highest order in South Africa for a musician, the Order of Ikhamanga, by then-President Jacob Zuma. Masekela received the 2011 Lifetime Achievement award at the WOMEX World Music Expo in Copenhagen. Numerous universities have bestowed him with honorary doctorates including the University of York and the University of the Witwatersrand. The U.S Virgin Islands proclaimed March 19th as ‘Hugh Masekela Day’ in March 2011. 

Masekela was involved in several social initiatives and served as a director on the board of the Lunchbox Fund, a non-profit organization that provides a daily meal to students of township schools in Soweto, Johannesburg. Masekela founded the Hugh Masekela Heritage Foundation in 2015 to preserve and promote African heritage. On January 23, 2018, Masekela lost his battle against prostate cancer at the age of 78. His 80th birthday was honored with a Google Doodle of Masekela, dressed in a colorful shirt, playing the flugelhorn in front of a banner.

Hugh Masekela
South African History Online

 Boitumelo Masihleho is a South African digital content creator. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Rhodes University in Journalism and Media Studies and Politics and International Studies.  

She's an experienced multimedia journalist who is committed to writing balanced, informative and interesting stories on a number of topics. Boitumelo has her own YouTube channel where she shares her love for affordable beauty and lifestyle content.