Musical tribute to jazz legend Bra Hugh

Big names from the South African music world paid a musical tribute on Sunday to Hugh Masekela, the jazz legend and anti-apartheid activist who died last week at the age of 78 after a decade-long fight with cancer.

Hundreds of family members, friends and fans took part in a memorial held at the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus to celebrate the legacy of the ‘father of South African jazz.’

Among the performers were Jonas Gwangwa, Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse and Zimbabwean Oliver Mtukudzi.

Masekela’s sister Barbara said the jazz musician remained strong until his last days and he did not want anyone to feel sorry for him, South African broadcaster SABC reported.

“As soon as he got out of the house, we would burst into tears …. My brother fought very brave and with courage. He never admitted that he was going to die. He never admitted that thought in his mind,” Barbara said.

South Africa’s Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa said: “Let us rejoice in the realisation that Bra Hugh contributed meaningfully to humanity during his lifetime. Although he can no longer compose new songs, grace our stages and blow the trumpet, we know that his thundering voice will resound beyond the grave.” 

Anti-apartheid anthems

Masekela’s song may have ended, but his music, with its distinctive Afro-jazz sounds, will never stop playing. Many of his compositions became well-known anti-apartheid anthems such as Soweto Blues, which mourned the deaths of children killed by police during the 1976 Soweto uprising, and Bring Him Back Home demanding Nelson Mandela’s freedom from jail.

His music was a soundtrack to the fight for freedom by blacks. His song Stimela/Coal Train on migrant labour being taken back in trains to South Africa’s mines won the hearts of South Africans with its slow rhythm blending with the movement of the steam-piston.

Another hit is the breezy 1968 single Grazing in the Grass in which Masekela plays the trumpet.

Early life

Masekela was born in Witbank, Mpumalanga, the eastern province bordering Swaziland and Mozambique. He was a musically gifted child who learned the piano at a young age. At 14, he took up playing the trumpet.

“It was in those days in Witbank that music first captured my soul, forced me to recognise its power,” he wrote in his candid autobiography Still Grazing.

His first trumpet was given to him by British-born Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, a white anti-apartheid activist.

Masekela had wanted a trumpet after seeing the 1950 film Young Man with a Horn. “If I can get a trumpet, I won’t bother anyone anymore,” he told the priest.

Masekela had two early horn heroes — Harry James and Miles Davis. After watching the Young Man with a Horn, in which the unseen star behind the fictional hero is James, Masekela decided to become a trumpet player.

Davis never wanted to be yesterday’s guy and Masekela followed his approach by reinventing and changing styles to make his music innovative and fresh.

When Archbishop Huddleston gifted him a trumpet and arranged a music teacher for him, other pupils also wanted instruments and the Huddleston Jazz Band was born.

They wore black trousers and grey silk shirts, and played American rather than African music. Along with Masekela, the band featured the trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, who would also become a star.

By the late 1950s, Masekela was performing to sold-out audiences in Cape Town and Johannesburg as part of the Jazz Epistles – the first South African jazz group to record an album.

Life in exile

In 1960, he left South Africa following the March 21 Sharpeville massacre, which saw 69 people brutally killed and resulted in a government ban on large gatherings. Archbishop Huddleston helped in facilitating his exile.

Masekela did not return to South Africa until after the release of Mandela in 1990.

Despite his long exile, the struggle for freedom by South African blacks was close to his heart and his music celebrated that.

In New York, Masekela studied at the Manhattan School of Music and got soaked in the music of jazz greats like Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. They greatly inspired him but he wanted to evolve his own music style with an Afro-jazz flavour.

He moved with giants of music like Dizzy Gillespie and Harry Belafonte who encouraged him to stick to his own style and pro-actively introduced South African music to the American audience. Masekela and South African musical legend Miriam Makeba, also known as ‘Mama Africa’, briefly married in the early 1960s.

His first hit was the 1968 instrumental Grazing in the Grass which topped the US charts while he was living in Los Angeles.

Back to the roots

While Masekela made a name for himself in the US, he could not ignore the inner call.

“For me, songs come like a tidal wave … 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,” he wrote in his book.

He later spent several years in West Africa, where he played with icons like Nigeria’s Fela Kuti.

In the 1980s, he built a mobile recording studio in Botswana where he lived for several years, toured with Paul Simon of Graceland fame and helped with the score for the hit musical Sarafina!

Masekela finally returned to South Africa after the release of Mandela.

— E. Jayakumar