Posts Tagged ‘Hugh Masekela’

Obituary: Hugh Masekela 1939-2018

Posted on January 23rd, 2018 in News, Recent posts by .

Hugh Masekela x 700

Photography © Brett Rubin

Nigel Williamson on the life of the colossus of South African music who died today

Read our beginner’s guide to Hugh Masekela

There’s an extraordinary photo of a 16-year-old Hugh Masekela taken in the township of Sophiatown on the day in 1955 when he received a new trumpet, sent from the US by Louis Armstrong.

The image of him leaping for joy with the instrument waved triumphantly above his head seems to personify much about both his music and the spirit of the man.


His songs spoke movingly of the struggles and sorrows of his people – for example  ‘Stimela’, on which he recounted the hardship of black migrant workers in South Africa’s coal mines, or ‘Soweto Blues’, which he wrote for his ex-wife Miriam Makeba to sing after the 1976 township massacre. Yet at the same time Masekela’s music was imbued with a resilient joy-to-be-alive sentiment and a defiant hope that one day his country would be free.

Fast forward to Masekela in exile in the 60s, where he is emerging as a talented but conventional trumpeter on the New York jazz scene. Miles Davis takes him on one side and gives him some advice that will shape his musical vision for the rest of his life. “You’re just going to be a statistic if you play jazz,” Davis tells him. “But if you put in some of the stuff you remember from Africa, you’ll be different from everybody.”

The result was a glorious fusion of American jazz and African township rhythms which made him anti-apartheid’s premier musical ambassador and in 1968 took him to number one in the American pop charts with ‘Grazin’ in the Grass’.

Over the next 50 years there were many ups and downs but the spirit of his music continued to shine true and its message of hope triumphing over adversity never wavered. Masekela eventually returned to South Africa in 1990 following the release from prison of Nelson Mandela.

His ferocity mellowed and he became a benign and avuncular elder statesman of the post-apartheid era. He continued to record and tour but spent much of his time and energy mentoring younger South African artists, even while battling cancer.

“I’ve had a very rich life,” he said.  “The best thing I can do now is to encourage a new generation of talented people to come through.”

RIP, Bra Hugh.

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Hugh Masekela, a beginner’s guide

Posted on January 23rd, 2018 in Features, News, Recent posts by .


Hugh Masekela has died at the age of 78. We publish this guide to his life and music as a tribute… (photo: Brett Rubin)

Diane Coetzer traces the impressive career of the hugely influential South African horn player

When Hugh Masekela’s recording of ‘Grazing in the Grass’ streaked to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1968, it brought the trumpeter international fame on a scale unprecedented for a South African. The cut, which appeared on the album The Promise of a Future, had been issued by Chisa (Zulu slang for ‘Hot’), a label Masekela had started with producer Stewart Levine in the mid-60s. Opening with the sound of Masekela playing on a cowbell with two drumsticks, ‘Grazing in the Grass’ featured Bruce Langhorne’s easy-going guitar work but it was Masekela’s buoyant horn, joyfully carrying with it a distinctive African styling, that cast a spell over American listeners.

Still, Masekela’s stunning success with the Philemon Hou-composed instrumental was bittersweet for the 29-year-old exile. Spooked by a close call with the apartheid regime’s special branch police and shocked at the massacre of peaceful demonstrators in Sharpeville in March, Masekela had finally been able to get a passport in May 1960 and boarded a plane for London, and, a few months later, the US. Encouraged and championed by Miriam Makeba, who was living in New York, Masekela left behind a loving family who had watched their son and brother’s early interest in music develop into a full-blown obsession to be a trumpet player.

In 1953, while a teenager at Johannesburg’s St Peter’s boarding school, he’d seen Kirk Douglas in Young Man with a Horn and had wasted no time in persuading Father Trevor Huddleston, his school superintendent and a leading anti-apartheid activist, to help him get his first trumpet. Over the next seven years Masekela honed his playing skills with the school band and the Huddlestone Jazz Band, and was soon gigging with the Merry Makers’ Orchestra where he learned how to hold long notes and play confidently between mbaqanga grooves. He took up with the African Jazz and Variety Revue, which was taking township jazz across the country, and played trumpet in King Kong, the first ‘all-African jazz opera’ featuring Makeba in the female lead. In the months before Masekela’s flight into exile, he had also formed The Jazz Epistles with Abdullah Ibrahim (then known as Dollar Brand), Kippie Moeketsi, Jonas Gwangwa and Johnny Gertze – in the process creating what is still the most thrilling line-up of jazz musicians in South Africa’s history. The band’s sole record, Jazz Epistle Verse 1, remains a dazzlingly original showcase of modern jazz.

On the day of Masekela’s arrival in New York he went to the Jazz Gallery on East Eighth Street to see Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. With the ever-generous Makeba as the link, Masekela had been corresponding with Gillespie while still in South Africa, and the American trumpeter later took him to another club to meet Charles Mingus and Max Roach. On the way back uptown at the end of the night, he stopped at the Half Note where John Coltrane was performing with a new group.

This intoxicating introduction to the American jazz scene set the tone for Masekela’s years in exile, that saw him blot out the aching for his family and country by unabashedly embracing the musical possibilities offered by his new home. He met Levine during his second year at the Manhattan School of Music and soon began getting session and club work. With Harry Belafonte’s encouragement, he began recording Trumpet Africaine: The New Beat from South Africa – the first of what is now a catalogue of 44 solo recordings. Masekela hated his debut, dubbing the record a “disaster.” He quickly realised that future recordings should be based on repertoire drawn from the music he’d been raised on and that he’d played back home. He also reignited his songwriting, composing the mbaqanga bebop track ‘U, Dwi’ for his second album, Grrr, which additionally saw Masekela branching out into singing on tracks like ‘Umaningi Bona’.

From his teenage days as an emerging musician in South Africa, Masekela had never shied away from collaboration and he ramped this up in the US. It’s Masekela’s trumpet solo you can hear on The Byrds’ hit single ‘So You Want to be a Rock’n’Roll Star’ – the last in their original line-up. He worked with Louis Armstrong, Belafonte, Gillespie, Fela Kuti, Marvin Gaye and Herb Alpert (on the 1978 album Herb Alpert & Hugh Masekela), among others. Together with Levine, Masekela organised Zaire 74 – a music festival companion to George Foreman and Muhammad Ali’s ‘Rumble in the Jungle.’ The trumpeter later joined Paul Simon when he toured Graceland in 1987, playing his political anthem ‘Mandela (Bring Him Back Home)’ to audiences across the world.

Musically, Masekela matched his jazz rigour with a magpie’s eye for musical forms that were an easy fit for his playing style and taste. The 1971 album Hugh Masekela & The Union of South Africa was flavoured with Nigerian highlife and soul, and his work with Ghanaian band Hedzoleh Soundz on the 1973 album, Masekela Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz, spliced Afrobeat with Masekela’s free-floating trumpet. This wide-ranging curiosity and appetite for different music was formed in Masekela’s youth. “I’ve had a very rich life, because Johannesburg was a melting pot of especially migrant labourers from all over southern and central Africa,” Masekela told me a few years ago. “So I was luckier than most human beings to grow up in an environment where, on weekends, you would have a choice of seeing Mozambican or Tsonga people while in another part of town, on an open veld, you could see Zulus, Sothos, Twanas, Namibians, Malawians, Zimbabweans and Botswana folk.”

By his own admission Masekela was not equipped to handle the success that ‘Grazing in the Grass’ brought. ‘I became obsessed with the pleasures of the flesh, which only led to sleepless nights, mind-boggling immorality, dishonesty, broken hearts, and hung-over mornings,’ he writes in Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela, the hugely readable autobiography he co-authored with D Michael Cheers. His return to South Africa in September 1990, after 30 years in exile, did little to end Masekela’s addictions and in 1997 he entered rehab in the UK.

These days Masekela is the recipient of multiple awards, including South Africa’s highest order, The Order of Ikhamanga, as well as a number of honorary degrees and doctorates. Although now in his late 70s, he’s still recording – his most recent record, No Borders, earned him a South African Music Award for Best Adult Contemporary Album.

His 60-year-plus live performing career has, however, been put on hold with news that Masekela – who has been in treatment for prostate cancer since 2008 – recently had an emergency operation to remove a tumour. ‘I have cancelled my commitments for the immediate future as I will need all my energy to continue this fight against prostate cancer,’ he said in a statement issued on October 6. This includes his upcoming UK date at the EFG London Jazz Festival where he was due to perform with Abdullah Ibrahim.

Even as he battles “this stealthy disease,” Masekela’s driving passion remains “making heritage visible,” as witnessed by the annual Hugh Masekela Heritage Festival, which takes place in Soweto in early November. For the first time in its four-year run, the festival’s namesake didn’t collaborate with the line-up of talent, which this year included BCUC, Johnny Cradle and Oliver Mtukudzi. But his commitment to the event, and other heritage-based initiatives, continues. He says, “I advise every kid to check out their past because without a past you are in limbo.”




(MGM, 1966)

After the disappointment he felt in Trumpet Africaine, Masekela settled into his own musical style for his second album, confidently giving mbaqanga an emotional complexity on tracks like ‘Sharpeville’.



The Promise of a Future

(Chisa, 1968)

The No 1 hit ‘Grazing in the Grass’ featured in this gorgeous set, which also included ‘Vuca (Wake Up)’, a self-penned, rootsy track that convincingly combined Masekela’s vocal and trumpet-playing.



I Am Not Afraid

(Chisa/Blue Thumb, 1974)

Recorded in LA with Hedzoleh Soundz, the seven-track record opens with a heady version of the Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Night in Tunisia’ but the album’s emotional heart is ‘Stimela’, Masekela’s epic lament for southern Africa’s migrant labour force.



Hugh Masekela Presents the CHISA Years: 1965-1975 (Rare & Unreleased)

(BBE Records, 2006)

Fourteen lost tracks of sheer musical joy are gathered together on this release featuring Masekela playing with Letta Mbulu, Johannesburg Street Band, Ojah and others. A Top of the World review in #36.



No Borders

(Semopa, 2016)

Poignant and powerful, Masekela summons his very best on his latest record: a raging vocal track against slavery (‘Shuffle & Bow’), superb horn playing (‘Shango’), and a set of terrific collaborations – ‘Tapera’ with Oliver Mtukudzi especially shines. A Top of the World this issue, see p44.

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Introducing Songlines issue #133 (December 2017)

Posted on November 1st, 2017 in Features, Recent posts by .


The December 2017 (#133) issue of Songlines is now on sale!

Our cover star this issue is Hugh Masekela, the legendary South African horn player. Other features include an interview with the Dublin-based four-piece Lankum about their modern take on Irish trad music; Belgians Didier Laloy and Kathy Adam talk about their outlandish new orchestral project, Belem & the MeKanics; qanun player Maya Youssef who releases her debut album, Syrian Dreams; Tools of the Trade on the bamboo mouth organ from Thailand, the khaen, plus the latest CD, book, world cinema and live reviews. 


The Top of the World CD includes tracks from Robert Plant, Saz’iso, Lankum and Hugh Masekela, as well as a guest playlist from composer and conductor, Carl Davis, featuring music from Paul Robeson, Compay Segundo and others.


To buy the new issue or to find out more about subscribing to Songlines, please visit:

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October 2014: Top 10 UK Live Events

Posted on October 1st, 2014 in Live, News, Recent posts by .

With post-summer blues setting in, here’s our guide to the top 10 gigs in October to reinvigorate you with a list of the best concerts happening this month!



Faustus will tour the entire breadth of the country this October on a mammoth 16-date tour. The trio – consisting of melodeon player and singer Saul Rose, and Benji Kirkpatrick (Bellowhead) and Paul Sartin (Bellowhead) – released their sophomore album Broken Down Gentlemen last year to great acclaim, and are a strong force in the British folk scene, with an impetus on bringing freshness and vigour to the idiom.

Where & When: Across the UK, October 2-29 More info


While and Matthews


This October sees Chris While and Julie Matthews set off on their 20th anniversary tour to celebrate their illustrious career, which has seen them release ten albums and tour across the world.

Where & When: Across the UK, October 3-November 26 More info


Anoushka Shankar with Tanmoy Bose, Pirashanna Thevarajah, Sanjeev Shankar, & Kenji Ota

anoushka shankar

Following the wonderful news that Anoushka Shankar will be expecting her second born in the next few months, this is now her only remaining UK date this autumn, so be sure not to miss out! She is joined by a star-studded line-up including tabla maestro Tanmoy Bose, multi-percussionist Pirashanna Thevarajah, shehnai player Sanjeev Shankar, and sitar player Kenji Ota.

Where & When: Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, London, October 4 More info.


Dobet Gnahoré


The Grammy-winning songstress from the Ivory Coast will grace our shores for seven dates this October. As part of the Na Dre Dance Tour she will be joined by a full band and a cast of contemporary African dancers. The Rich Mix event – October 10 – will also play host to a DJ set from African Night Fever.

Where & When: Across the UK, October 8-15 More info.


Dele Sosimi Afrobeat Orchestra


One of the busiest and hard-working Afrobeat ambassadors will take the stage for a concert at the Royal Albert Hall’s Elgar Room as part of Songlines Presents this October. Dele was a co-founder of Postive Force with Femi Kuti, and was also one of the youngest players in Fela Kuti’Egypt 80. He is renowned for his marathon-length shows that he delivers every few months at the New Empowering Church in Hackney, and expect the energy levels to be just as high in this intimate setting. 

Where & When: Elgar Room, Royal Albert Hall, October 11 More info


Musicport Festival


An all-star cast will once again descend upon Whitby for a weekend of fantastic music at the Whitby Pavilion. The winner of the 2013 Fatea award for Best Indoor Festival in has a stellar line-up stretched across the three days. Friday sees an upbeat showing with Yaaba Funk headlining and support from Idlewild and Leeds based power-klezmer group Tantz. Saturday’s bill is topped by Lo’Jo, while Sunday’s impressive cast – including performances from The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and O’Hooley and Tidow – is headed up by the wonderful duo of Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita (pictured).

Where & When: Whitby Pavilion, Whitby, October 17-19 More info


Balkan Beat Box & Dub Inc


New-York natives Balkan Beat Box take their exhilarating live show to London’s KOKO this October. Their combination of hip-hop, klezmer, reggae and Middle Eastern music is underpinned by a frenetic energy, propelled by their inimitable front man Tomer Yosef. They have support from the equally unrelenting Dub Inc.

Where & When: KOKO, London, October 22 More info


Mohammad-Reza Shajarian with the Shahnaz Ensemble

The incredibly talented Persian classical singer Mohammad-Reza Shajarian will play the Hammersmith Apollo at the end of October in what promises to be an incredible show. An esteemed performer in his own right, Shajarian has also collaborated with Kayhan Kalhor on the exquisite Night, Silence, Desert. He will also play Edinburgh’s Usher Hall on October 22.

Where & When: Edinburgh, October 22 More info & Hammersmith Apollo, London, October 26 More info


Hugh Masekela & Somi


It’s been 55 years since Masekela formed the Jazz Epistles, along with Abdullah Ibrahim, and he’s still going strong. As one of the foremost proponents of South Africa’s jazz heritage, it’s always a big occasion when Masekela comes to town. He’ll be supported by jazz vocalist Somi, who has recently collaborated with Ibrahim Maalouf.

Where & When: Barbican Centre, London, October 27 More info


LIFEM 2014


Following last year’s focus upon Finnish music, this autumn LIFEM (The London International Festival of Exploratory Music) turns its head to music from South America and Africa. Across the week there will be performances from Brazilian musicians Badi AssadGaio de Lima, Malian singer Ami Koita (read more about her in the new issue, #104 on sale Oct 10), and the acclaimed musicians Amira Kheir (Sudan) and Amadou Diagne (Senegal) [both pictured]. The final night of the festival will see the official launch of Carmen Souza’s live album Live at the Lagny Jazz Festival.

Where & When: King’s Place, London, October 29-November 1 More info


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