Hugh Masekela Biography

Hugh Rampolo Masekela, 4 April 1939, Witbank, Johannesburg, South Africa. South Africa’s leading émigré trumpeter and band leader was born into a musical family, which boasted one of the largest jazz record collections in the city. One of Masekela’s earliest memories is of winding up the household gramophone for his parents; by the age of 10, he was familiar with most of the 78s issued by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway and Glenn Miller. Other early influences were the traditional musics of the Swazis, Zulus, Sutus and Shangaan, all of which he heard at weekend musical gatherings in the township and neighbouring countryside. A difficult and rebellious schoolboy, Masekela was frequently given to playing truant. On one such occasion, he saw Kirk Douglas in the Bix Beiderbecke biopic Young Man With A Horn - and decided there and then that he wanted to become a trumpeter and band leader when he grew up. His teacher, the anti-apartheid activist and Anglican priest Trevor Huddlestone, welcomed this enthusiasm and gave Masekela his first trumpet, a battered old instrument owned by a local band leader. A year later, in 1955, Huddlestone was expelled from South Africa. In New York, he met Louis Armstrong, and enthused to him about Masekela’s talents and persuaded Armstrong to send a trumpet over to Johannesburg for the boy.

With trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, Masekela dropped out of school in 1955 to form his first group, the Merry Makers. His main influences at this time were the African-American bop trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown and by 1956, the Merry Makers were playing nothing but bop. By 1958, apartheid had tightened up to the extent that it was very difficult for black bands to make a living - they were banned from the government-controlled radio and were not allowed to travel freely from one town to another. Masekela was obliged to leave the Merry Makers and join the African Jazz and Variety package tour (which also included his future wife, Miriam Makeba). Operated by a white man, Alfred Herbert, the troupe was able to circumvent some of the travel restrictions imposed on blacks and continued to tour the country. In 1959, with Makeba, Masekela left Herbert to join the cast of the ‘township musical’, King Kong. The same year, he formed the pioneering band, the Jazz Epistles, with Gwangwa and pianist Dollar Brand (now Abdullah Ibrahim). They became the first black band in South Africa to record an album, all previous releases having been 78s.

In 1960, the year of the Sharpeville massacre, the government extended the Group Areas Act to ban black musicians from working in inner city (that is, white) clubs. The move effectively ended the Jazz Epistles’ ability to make a living, and Masekela decided the time had come to emigrate to the USA. With the help of Trevor Huddlestone and Harry Belafonte in New York, he obtained a passport and, after a brief period in London at the Guildhall School of Music, won a scholarship to New York’s Manhattan School of Music. Initially aspiring to become a sideman with Art Blakey, Masekela was instead persuaded by the drummer to form his own band, and put together a quartet that debuted at the Village Gate club in 1961. A year later, he recorded his debut, Trumpet Africaine, which was a considerable critical success. In 1964, Masekela married Makeba (another of Belafonte’s protégés) who divorced him a few years later to marry Black Panther activist Stokeley Carmichael. Continuing to lead his own band, Masekela also wrote arrangements for Makeba and toured with her backing group.

Husband and wife became prominent critics of the South African regime, and donated part of their touring income to fund scholarships that enabled black musicians to leave South Africa. In 1964, Masekela also released The Americanization Of Ooga Booga, and appeared at the first Watts, Los Angeles, California Jazz Festival. In 1966, he linked up with old Manhattan School of Music classmate Stewart Levine to form the production company Chisa. The original idea was for Levine to be the artist and Masekela the producer, but the success of Chisa’s debut release, an album called The Emancipation Of Hugh Masekela, led to a role-reversal. (The Levine-Masekela partnership continued throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s.)

In 1967, Masekela appeared at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival and released two more albums, Promise Of A Future and Coincidence. Unable to find top-quality South African musicians with whom to work in the USA, Masekela became drawn into the lucrative area of lightweight jazz/pop. His first chart success in the genre was an instrumental version of ‘Up, Up And Away’ in 1967, which reached number 71 in the US charts. In 1968, he had a number 1 hit with ‘Grazin’ In The Grass’, selling four million copies. The follow-up, ‘Puffin’ On Down The Track’, disappointingly only reached number 71. Not surprisingly, given the mood of the times, the latter two singles were widely perceived to carry pro-marijuana statements in their titles and, in autumn 1968, Masekela was arrested at his home in Malibu and charged with possession of the drug. Despite the urging of the record business, Masekela refused to capitalize on the success of ‘Grazin’ In The Grass’ with a lightweight album in the same vein, and instead recorded the protest album Masekela, which included track titles such as ‘Fuzz’ and ‘Riot’.

In 1970, Masekela signed with Motown Records, which released Reconstruction. Also that year, he formed the Union Of South Africa band with fellow émigrés Gwangwa and Caiphus Semenya. The band was short-lived, however, following the lengthy hospitalization of Gwangwa from injuries sustained in a car crash. Frustrated in his attempt to launch an American-based, South African line-up, Masekela visited London to record the album Home Is Where The Music Is with exiled South African saxophonist Dudu Pukwana. Deciding to reimmerse himself in his African roots, Masekela set off in late 1972 on a ‘pilgrimage’ to Senegal, Liberia, Zaire and other countries. He worked for a year in Guinea (where his ex-wife Makeba was now living) as a music teacher, and spent some months in Lagos, Nigeria, playing in Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s band. He finally ended up in Ghana, where he joined the young highlife-meets-funk band Hedzoleh Soundz. Between 1973 and 1976, Masekela released five albums with the group - Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz, You Told Your Mama Not To Worry, I Am Not Afraid, The Boys Doin’ It and Colonial Man. By 1975, however, leader and band had fallen out, with Hedzoleh accusing Masekela of financial mistreatment. In fact, the cost of supporting Hedzoleh in the USA during loss-making tours had drained Masekela’s resources, and in 1976, he and Levine were obliged to wind up Chisa. Short of money, Masekela signed to A&M Records, where he recorded two lightweight albums with label boss Herb Alpert - The Main Event and Herb Alpert/Hugh Masekela.

In 1980, with Makeba, Masekela headlined a massive Goin’ Home outdoor concert in Lesotho. In 1982, in a similar venture, they appeared in neighbouring Botswana. Both concerts were attended by large numbers of black and white South Africans, who gave the duo heroes’ welcomes. Masekela decided to settle in Botswana and signed to the UK label Jive Records, which flew a state-of-the-art mobile studio over to him. The sessions resulted in the albums Technobush and Waiting For The Rain. In 1983, he made his first live appearance in London for over 20 years, at the African Sounds For Mandela concert at Alexandra Palace. In 1986, Masekela severed his links with Jive and returned to the USA, where he signed with Warner Brothers Records, releasing the album Tomorrow, and joining labelmate Paul Simon’s Graceland world tour. In 1989, he co-wrote the music for the Broadway show Sarafina!, set in a Soweto school during a state of emergency, and released the album Up Township. During the 90s he returned to a more traditional style. He celebrated his 60th birthday in 1999 with a new album that revisited some old numbers.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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