South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela died aged 79 on 23 January following a recurrence of prostate cancer. He was famous internationally for his playing and singing; for blending South African musical styles with jazz and pop; and as a prominent anti-apartheid activist. Born in Witbank, a mining town near Johannesburg, Masekela started his musical career in a school run by the British anti-apartheid priest Trevor Huddleston.
After seeing a biopic about jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, he agreed to stop getting into trouble at school in exchange for learning the trumpet. He then became part of the “Father Huddleston Band”, which made several recordings in 1956. Huddleston famously convinced Louis Armstrong to give Masekela one of his trumpets.
This was a period when the style labelled “Township Jazz” was thriving in areas of South Africa’s big cities. It combined American swing with a range of local styles, ranging from close harmony singing via the penny whistle jive known as kwela to marabi, the equivalent to the blues. In 1958 Masekela formed the Jazz Epistles with some other key figures, particularly pianist Dollar Brand (later Abdullah Ibrahim), trombonist Jonas Gwangwa and “South Africa’s Charlie Parker”, saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi. They made the first LP by black jazz musicians, drawing on modern American jazz styles in a fusion with South African elements.
By this time it was getting more and more difficult for black musicians to work and survive apartheid. Inner city areas such as Sophiatown which had served as cultural centres were demolished to make way for whites only housing, and the black population transported to townships outside the cities. The state broadcaster banned any music other than “Bantu” folk music, anything that might show black people to be capable of sophisticated and modern musical creation. Repression grew following the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 and Masekela has said he was already known as an underground activist.
Many musicians who had the opportunity left. Masekela ended up in New York via London with help from John Dankworth, Yehudi Menuhin and Harry Belafonte. He was faced with a musical dilemma hinted at in the title of his 1965 album ‘The Americanisation of Ooga Booga’. “I just wanted to play bebop”, he said, inspired by seeing many of his US heroes in the flesh. It was perhaps a safer choice when there was little awareness of what came to be known as World Music.
He recounted being convinced by Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie to retain the South African sound, finding sympathetic American musicians to play with, particularly pianist Larry Willis with whom he worked intermittently for the rest of his life. In 1968, he had a number one hit in the pop charts with ‘Grazing in the Grass’ with trumpet over a catchy African riff. His continued allegiance to both African and American musical genres was later well captured on his 1988 album ‘Uptownship’, which consisted of his jazz covers of Motown hits alongside African tunes.
Masekela moved to Africa in 1972, partly to escape conditions that fed addictions, playing with local musicians in a number of countries including Fela Kuti. He was involved with organising a music festival on the occasion of Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire in 1974. In 1980, he settled in Botswana, close to South Africa, setting up a recording studio where he made several albums. He returned to South Africa immediately after Mandela’s release and worked with young musicians, while also recording albums such as ‘Sixty’ which were more rooted in the crossover sounds he had pioneered.
From the 60s onwards Masekela was a public face of opposition to apartheid, combining his music with what was often a directly political message: ‘Stimela’, the story of migrant workers forced to work in the mines of South Africa, which featured his voice telling their story and imitating the train bringing them; ‘Soweto Blues’ written about the 1976 uprising; ‘Bring Him Back Home’ for Nelson Mandela; ‘Blues for Huey’ for the Black Panther leader Huey Newton; and others. He appeared at the concert for Mandela’s 70th birthday at Wembley in 1988.
But Masekela was not just a mouthpiece for the orthodoxy of the ANC or broader anti-apartheid movement. Together with his ex-wife Miriam Makeba, he appeared with Paul Simon on his 1986 Graceland tour despite it being subject to pickets for breaking the UN cultural boycott of South Africa — by giving prominence to black South African musicians who would otherwise have remained little known outside their country. Also, after 1994, he was critical of aspects of the new political settlement, including the widespread xenophobia towards migrant workers. His last album was titled ‘No Borders’.
Masekela’s trumpet or flugelhorn playing could be strong and angry or soft and caressing. It was also joyful. I saw him a number of times in the last few years and remember how he would not be happy until he had got the audience dancing. So successful was he that I remember the Hackney Empire almost literally rocking. He was not merely a virtuoso jazz trumpeter or a political activist, but also a key creator of a musical form that continues to inspire South African musicians and provide enjoyment for listeners.