South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela has at times been cursed in his life. But he’s emerged on the other side, coming back strong since the end of apartheid, settled back at home, having conquered demons personal and political. He is still making music on the cornet and flugelhorn and singing.
Hugh Ramopolo Masekela was born on 4 April 1939 in Witbank, near Johannesburg. Masekela showed musical ability from a young age, and began to play piano as a child. Inspired by the movie Young Man with a Horn, Masekela began to play the trumpet, encouraged by anti-apartheid activist Father Trevor Huddleston, who helped him acquire the instrument.
At Huddleston’s request, Masekela then received tuition in trumpet playing form Uncle Sauda, who played for the Johannesburg ‘Native’ Municipal Brass Brand. Masekela soon mastered the trumpet, and began to play with other aspiring musicians in the Huddleston Jazz Band – South Africa’s first youth orchestra.
As the apartheid situation in South Africa worsened, Masekela left for London, then New York, where friends (principally countrywoman Miriam Makeba, to whom he was briefly married) helped him land a place at the Manhattan School of Music. Masekela played on the Byrds’ classic rock hit “So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star” and performed at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of ’67.
Already unclassifiable because of the breadth of his music, the next year “Grazin’ In The Grass” made him a huge pop star with its laid-back, easy vibe, hitting the charts in several countries—it reached number one on the Billboard pop and R&B charts in America. The track itself was just filler, recorded in half an hour, but it brought him international fame; suddenly, he was a headlining name. Then, in 1972, he turned his back on all that, and headed back to Africa.
After moving through several countries, he hooked up with Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, who introduced him to the Ghanaian band Hedzoleh Sound, with whom Masekela recorded a string of hits. In the 1980s, Masekela set up a mobile studio in Botswana, where he further developed his musical style using African mbaqanga strains. Masekela performed with Paul Simon on the Graceland tour, along with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Masekela defended Simon vigorously when the tour was seen as a violation of the African National Congress’ cultural boycott. His 1987 hit ‘Bring Him Back Home’ became the anthem for Nelson Mandela’s world tour, following his release from prison in 1992.
Masekela then returned to England, co-penning the successful musical Sarafina before joining Paul Simon’s Graceland tour. Finally, with the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990, Masekela was able to return to South Africa, recording and touring there once more.