CAPE TOWN SA (CelebrityAccess) — Hugh Masekela, a South Africa jazz trumpeter, singer, and activist whose music came to represent the anti-apartheid movement through songs such as “Soweto Blues” and “Bring Him Back Home”, died on Tuesday in Johannesburg. He was 78.
Ramopolo Hugh Masekela was born on April 4, 1939, in Witbank, South Africa, a coal-mining suburb of Johannesburg. His father was a noted sculptor who moonlighted as a building inspector while his mother was a social worker. However, Masekela was raised primarily by his grandmother, who ran a speakeasy for mine workers, which infused him with an early love for music.
He later attended St. Peter’s Secondary School, a boarding school, where he began to pursue music and the trumpet, becoming entranced by the music of trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke. He also started to refine his anti-apartheid views at St. Peter’s under the tutelage of Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, an influential anti-apartheid activist.
By 1956, Masekela was performing in dance bands around South Africa, and later joined the nation’s first notable bebop band the Jazz Epistles. While the group released just one album with 500 copies, the release has become a much-sought-after album for jazz collectors.
After the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre that left almost 70 protestors dead at the hands of South African police, Masekela was among the public figures who left the country, moving first to London and then, with the aid of Harry Belafonte and others, to the U.S.
In 1962, he released his debut studio album “Trumpet Africaine” on Mercury Records, heralding the start of one of the most productive recording periods of his career. He followed his debut album up with a series of albums in 1966, starting with the album “Grrr” blending politics with music rooted in South African culture on tracks such as “Sharpeville.”
In 1968, he scores his biggest charting hit in North America with “Grazing in the Grass” off of his album “The Promise of a Future.” “Grazing in the Grass” peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and which was re-recorded by Friends of Distinction, who broke into the top ten with the song.
While Masekela found success as a recording artist, he also battled substance abuse during this period and developed a dependence on both alcohol and cocaine which began to impact his work.
In the mid-1970s, he returned to Africa, where he began to perform across the sub-Saharan region with other African artists, including Fela Kuti, the exiled South African saxophonist Dudu Pukwana and began performing with the Ghanaian group Hedzoleh Soundz.
Mr. Masekela moved back to South Africa in 1990, but he continued to tour and record internationally into his mid-70s.
In 2010, Mr. Masekela was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in gold, South Africa’s highest medal of honor.
Masekela is survived by a son, a daughter, and two sisters.