Friday, January 26, 2018

Hugh Masekela, Trumpeter & Activist, Passes

South African trumpeter and musician
Hugh Masekela at St. Lucia Jazz
festival, May 2012.
(Reuters/Andrea De Silva)
This past week brought a number of homegoings, taking from us the South African musician and activist Hugh Masekela (April 4, 1939 - January 23, 2017), a trumpeter of impressive talent, and a freedom fighter against apartheid and for full equality for Black and brown South Africans. A native of KwaGuqa Township, Witibank, Masekela began his musical career at age 14, after seeing Kirk Douglas in the Hollywood film Young Man with a Horn, and his first trumpet was a gift from Louis Armstrong, via an anti-apartheid Anglican archbishop, Trevor Huddleston.

Masekela would go on to an internationally renowned career, traveling the continent and globe and playing with many of the most important jazz, pop and world-music musicians of his generations, but he never ceased agitating for his people's freedom. Throughout his oeuvre are numerous pieces that address the toxins of apartheid, racism, slavery, social, political and economic inequality, poverty, and other ills. After the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, in which South African authorities killed 69 protesters in cold blood, Masekela went into exile, and settling in New York, where he befriended US musicians and activists, and was able to study at the Manhattan School of Music, graduating in 1964, and briefly marrying the marvelous singer Miriam Makeba shortly thereafter.

Among Masekela's musical achievements were the chart-topping 1968 instrumental song "Grazing in the Grass," and his star turn with the pop R&B/jazz group The 5th Dimension, on their unforgettable hit "Up, Up and Away," in 1967. He also recorded with musicians ranging from Paul Simon to Abdullah Ibrahim to Kalahari, making a special point to engage other African and Black Diasporic, musicians, including Fela Kuti and Jorge Ben, and musical forms in his work. Throughout, he  enriched the century-long traditions of jazz music. Masekela founded the Botswana International Music School (BIMS) in 1985, an institution that continues, in different form but which still brings together young and established musicians from across Africa.

My introduction to Masekela's music came from hearing my father play both albums featuring his work and ones he issued, and then, in early adulthood, when he was one of the highlighted artists who participated in Paul Simon's famous album Graceland tour, which also included Miriam Makeba and brought to wider attention groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. (I may even have the Graceland LP in my collection!)

May he keep blowing his horn and creating beauty wherever he is now, and may we keep listening. In tribute to him, here are a few clips from YouTube. Enjoy!

Hugh Masekela, "Grazing In The Grass"

Hugh Masekela, "Afro Beat Blues"

Hugh Masekela, "Don't Go Lose It Baby [Rare Version]

Hugh Masekela, "Stimela" (with Graceland)
Hugh Masekela, "Blues for Huey"

Hugh Masekela, "Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)"

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