Born: April 4, 1939 Primary Instrument: Flugelhorn
Ever since the day in 1954 when Archbishop Trevor Huddleston gave him his trumpet, Masekela has played music that closely reflects his beginnings as a little boy in Witbank. The street songs, church songs, migrant labour work songs, political protest songs and the sounds of the wide cross-section of ethnic culture South Africa possesses from Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, Khoi-sa, Griqua, Sotho and Tswana peoples of the South, South East, Central and Western Regions to the Ndebele, Tsonga, Venda and Pedi provinces of the North and North West. The urban sounds of the townships, the influences of the Manhattan Brothers, Dorothy Masuka, the Dark City Sisters, the Mahotella Queens and Mahlathini, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba, Spokes Mashiyane, Lemmy Mabaso, Elijah Nkwanyana, Kippie Moeketsi, Mackay Davashe, all these form an intrinsic part of his musical roots, intertwined with vivid portraits of the struggles and the sorrows, the joys and passions of his country.
After Huddleston asked the leader of the Johannesburg “Native” Municipal Brass Band, Uncle Saude to teach him the rudiments of trumpet playing, Hugh quickly proceeded to master the instrument after having been inspired by the film “Young man with a horn” in which Kirk Douglas portrait the great American Jazz trumpeter, Bix Beiderbeck. Soon, some of his music loving schoolmates also became interested in playing instruments, leading to the formation of the Huddleston Jazz Band, South Africa’s very first youth orchestra formed at St. Peters Secondary School where the anti-apartheid priest was chaplain.
Huddleston was deported by the racist government of the time for his emancipation militancy and when Hugh kept on badgering him to help him leave the oppressive country for music education opportunities abroad, the priest worked very hard to get him to England. After playing in other dance bands led by the great Zakes Nkosi, Ntemi Piliso, Elijah Nkwanyana and Kippie Moeketsi, he joined the star studded African Jazz Revenue in 1956. Following a 77Manhattan Brothers tour of the country in 1958, he ended up playing in the orchestra for the “King-Kong” musical written by Todd Matshikiza, with Jonas Gwangwa and some of the afore mentioned musicians. King-Kong” was South Africa’s first record breaking blockbuster theatrical success that toured the country for a sold out year with Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brother’s Nathan Mdledle in the lead. The musical later went to London’s West End for two years. At the end of 1959, Abdullah Ibrahim, Kippie, Jonas, Makhaya Ntshoko, Johnny Gertz and Hugh formed Jazz Epistle Verse 1, the first African group to record an LP and perform to record-breaking audiences in J.H.B. & Cape Town through late 1959 to early 1960.
After the March 21, 1960 Sharpville Massacre where 69 Africans peacefully protesting the pass laws along the thousands of their fellow comrades were mercilessly mowed down, the ensuing national outrage caused the government to proclaim a state of emergency and the banning of gatherings by more than ten people.
As the brutality of the Apartheid state increased, Hugh finally left the country with the help of Trevor Huddleston and his friends Yehudi Menuhin and Johnny Dankworth who got him admitted into London’s Guildhall School of music. Miriam Makeba who was already enjoying major success in the USA later helped him with Harry Belafonte, Dizzy Gillepsie and John Mehegan to get admission to the Manhattan school of Music in New York. Hugh finally met Louis Armstrong who had sent the Huddleston Band a trumpet after Huddleston told the trumpet king about the bank he helped start back in South Africa before deportation.With immense help from Makeba and Belafonte, Hugh eventually began to record, gaining his first breakthrough with “The Americanization of Ooga-Booga” produced by the late Tom Wilson who had been producer of Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel’s debut successes. Stewart Levine his business partner in Chissa Records went on to produce hit records for Hugh on Uni Records, beginning with “Alive and Well at the Whisky” in 1967 and then “”Promise of A Future” which contained the gigantic hit song “Grazing in the Grass” in 1968.
By the beginning of the 1970’s he had attained international fame, selling out all of America’s festivals, auditoriums and top niteries. Heeding the call of his African roots, he moved to Guinea, then Liberia and Ghana after recording the historical “ Home is where Music is” with Dudu Pokwana.
After a pilgrimage to Zaire in 1973, he met Fela in Nigeria and again with Stewart Levine, he met “Hedzoleh Soundz” a grassroots Ghanaian bank Fela introduced them to. For the next five years they produced a string of ground breaking records, which included international favourites such as “The Marketplace”, “Ashiko”. “The Boy’z doin it”, “Vasco Da Gama”, “African Secret Society” and the evergreen “Stimela”. After a tour and two duet albums with Herp Albert, Hugh and Miriam played a Christmas Day concert in Lesotho in 1980 where 75 000 people came to see them after they had been away for 20 years from the region. In 1981, Hugh moved to Botswana where he started the Botswana international School of Music with Dr. Khabi Mngona. His record label Jive Records, helped him to set up a mobile studio in Gaborone where Stewart produced “Techno Bush” from which came the hit single “Don’t Go Lose it Baby” in 1986, he unexpectedly had to leave with his band Kalahari for England, his wife Lindi Phahle along with 14 people in the pretext of raiding “communist terrorist camps” manned by South African Anti-Apartheid activists.
While in England, Hugh conceived the Broadway musical “Sarafina” with Mbongeni Ngema and recorded another runaway song “Bring Back Nelson Mandela bring him back home to Soweto” with Kalahari in 1986. After touring in “Graceland” with Paul Simon, Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba, Masekela returned home following the unbanning of political parties and the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990. in 1991, he launched his first tour of South Africa called “Sekunjalo This is it” with Sankomota and Bayete; it was a four-month tour, selling out in the country’s major cities. His recent albums “Black to the Future” and sixty “have both gone platinum.
He uses his position to give a platform to a fresh generation of South African talent, some of whom will be playing in his band on tour, Masekela was heavily influences by African-American music since his infancy, having been raised on the 78 RPM gramophone records of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Chick Webb, Ella Fitzgerald, Sy Oliver, Lucky Millinder, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Erskine Hawkins, Coleman Hawkins, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Sarah Vaughen, Billy Eckstine, Louis Jordan, The Ink Spots, The Mills Brothers, Billie Holiday and Charlie Christian. In his teens, he fell in love with Dizzy Gillepsie, George Shearing, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Coltrane, Cannon ball, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham, Oscar Peterson, Bud Shank, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Stan Getz, Jackie & Roy Krak, June Christy Shorty Roger, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Bud Powell, and Mahalia Jackson. He went to school with Dave Grusinm, Herbie Hancock, Chick Correa, David Izenzon, Donald Byrd, Eric Dolphy, John Handy, Les Mc Ann, Edie Gomez, Richard Davis, Ron Carter and many other jazz greats. He played on some of Bob Marley’s very first readings and a very strong Brazilian influence. His favourite musician today is the late Franco of Zaire and he claims that he’s still learning music.
With the May 2005 release of Revival, this latest recording in the acclaimed Heads Up Africa series is a reminder of Hugh Masekela’s extraordinary growth and versatility.