Hugh Masekela is South Africa’s greatest trumpeter – and perhaps also the greatest accomplished musician on the African continent. Throughout his career, the multitalented 75-year old has performed with a variety of musical constellations including Paul Simon, Fela Kuti and Herb Alpert. A renowned solo artist, he played an important part in forming a cultural voice against the Apartheid regime.
Masakela’s career started in his hometown Witbank when, as a 14-year old, he saw Kirk Douglas in the musical film Young Man With a Horn. He developed an obsession with jazz, and followed the expansive development of jazz music in the fifties from Dixieland to Be-bop. In 1956 he became a member of the African Jazz Revue, and in 1959 he formed his own outfit, the Jazz Epistles, who were to become the first African jazz band to release a full- length album. Touring the whole of South Africa, the Jazz Epistles quickly gained recognition and popularity.
Then came the Sharpeville massacre. On 21 March 1960, 69 people were killed by police forces suppressing a demonstration against extended Apartheid laws. The incident led to more brutal oppression and an increasingly dire situation for the African population. Hugh Maskela left his homeland for London, and later for New York. Studying at the Manhattan School of Music, he met South African singer and human rights activist Miriam Makeba. Their musical cooperation ended in a short-lived marriage, after which Hugh started developing his solo career. Throughout the 1960s he established himself in the US with great hits like Grazing in the Grass, a great hit of the time.
Early in the 1970s, he returned to Africa – both physically and musically. Living in Liberia, Ghana, Guina and Nigeria, he started fruitful musical collaborations with other African musicians, recording several albums where jazz is combined with traditional African music. Moving to Botswana in 1981, he founded a music school and hence acquired the role of lecturer for a new generation of African artists. When finally Apartheid terminated its state of emergency in 1990, Hugh moved back to South Africa and celebrated with a nationwide tour, performing his anti-Apartheid anthem Bring Him Back Home to enthusiastic crowds.
Hugh Masekela has stated that a trumpet is unable to carry a political statement, and thinks that musicians care about music more than politics. Nevertheless, his contribution to the work against prejudice, for peace and understanding, can not be underestimated.
Text: Kristian Krohg-Sørensen