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.”