South African jazz trumpeter, composer and singer Hugh Masekela passed away on Monday at the age of 78 after a lengthy bout with prostate cancer. The legendary musician whose name, exploits and soul is woven into the very fabric of South Africa, has guided it through its many musical stages, from the precarious position of exile and finally upon his return in 1990.
Born in the town of Witbank in 1939, Masekela first learned to play trumpet at the age of 14, taking quite quickly to the instrument, before going on to lead a number of small ensembles. In 1959, as a member of the Jazz Epistles, which included Abdullah Ibrahim on piano, Jonas Gwangwa on trombone, and Kippie Moeketsi on alto saxophone, Masekela participated in the recording of the seminal Jazz Epistle Verse 1 shortly before the band’s break up. During that period Masekela also participated in the hit musical King Kong, a blockbuster production which included members of the Jazz Epistles, Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers. Masekela left South Africa in 1960, first going to London’s Guildhall School of Music before proceeding to the United States, where he met up with fellow exiles such as Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu.
In 1968 he scored a number one billboard hit with Grazin in the Grass which went on to sell millions of copies, cementing him as a bonafide international star. Masekela also had an admirable run as a label owner, forming Chisa records in the 1960s which lasted into the following decade.
In the 80s, he participated in a number of anti-apartheid initiatives
A raconteur par excellence and larger than life figure, Masekela takes to his grave a part of each and everyone of us. The Mail & Guardian arts supplement Friday is producing a tribute edition to be published on Friday 2 February 2018