As a child, my mother had all of Hugh Masekela‘s CDs, and so I grew up listening to his music. A few years back, I was fortunate enough to attend one of his concerts when he was on tour in the US. As his colleague and friend Yvonne Chaka Chaka said in the interview below, Masekela was very down to earth. After his concert, he came out, and greeted us… so I queued up and even got a chance to talk to him! Imagine that! I talked to the great Hugh Masekela! His enthusiasm was contagious! I particularly loved what he could do with his trumpet and his voice: simply amazing! Some of my favorite tracks were ‘Chileshe,’ ‘Strawberries‘ (not sure why, maybe because of the children’s chorus or the fact that as a child I could taste those juicy strawberries), ‘Coal Train (Stimela),’ ‘Khawuleza,’ ‘ The Boyz doin’ it‘, and countless others. Maybe it was his voice, slightly cracked and full of power, or the magic that came out of his trumpet, or the mix of African sounds,… all of it combined made Hugh Masekela, a genius African Jazz Trumpeter and musician.
Ramopolo Hugh Masekela was born on April 4, 1939, in Witbank, South Africa, a coal-mining town near Johannesburg. His father, Thomas Selema Masekela, was a health inspector and noted sculptor; his mother, Pauline Bowers Masekela, was a social worker. From a young age, he developed an early affinity to music, and was encouraged by his mentors to further the study of it. During an early trip to the US, he met Louis Armstrong, who offered his band a gift: a trumpet.
Hugh Masekela was not just a musician, but he was also a political activist who fought against that hateful system called apartheid. Throughout his career, he performed with great names such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, and collaborated with Harry Belafonte, Herb Alpert, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Paul Simon — and his ex-wife, Miriam Makeba. For almost 30 years, “Bra Hugh,” as he was fondly known, was exiled from his native country.
And almost despite himself — as he struggled for decades with copious drug and alcohol abuse — Masekela became a leading international voice against apartheid. In that sense, Masekela was like the prodigal son, whom God greatly loved, and who despite the drugs, was redeemed and even founded an organization, the Musicians and Artists Assistance Program of South Africa, to help South Africans artists battle substance abuse.
He sought solace on his home continent. “For me, songs come like a tidal wave,” he said. “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.” Indeed, when one listens to songs like ‘Khawuleza’ full of energy, one does feel the tidal wave!
Now Bra Hugh has taken his tidal wave and trumpet to the angels, who will be rocking to the sounds of ‘Chileshe‘ in heaven. I can clearly say that Hugh Masekela was one of the greatest, if not the greatest African Trumpeter of all. The New York Times published a very good article on him, the NPR as well, and the Guardian did a beautiful photo-Journal article on him: Hugh Masekela: life and career of the jazz trumpeter – in pictures. I live you with another great African singer, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, tribute to Bra Hugh. Enjoy!