South African trumpeter and jazz musician Hugh Ramopolo Masekela, who had a Number One hit with his version of “Grazing In the Grass,” died Tuesday in Johannesburg after a battle with prostate cancer. He was 78.
In a post on Twitter, the Masekela family wrote: “A loving father, brother, grandfather and friend, our hearts beat with profound loss … Hugh’s global and activist contribution to and participation in the areas of music, theatre, and the arts in general is contained in the minds and memory of millions across six continents and we are blessed and grateful to be part of a life and ever-expanding legacy of love, sharing and vanguard creativity that spans the time and space of six decades.”
Masekela’s son, TV host Selema “Sal” Masekela also shared a statement in which he remembered his father’s passion for music and fighting social injustice. Sal Masekela recalled how he was just five when he began accompanying his father to performances at famed jazz clubs in New York City. “He would steal the hearts and souls of innocents with a musical storytelling all his own, passionately and relentlessly transporting them to the farthest reaches of Africa with both voice and trumpet. It was these moments and his choosing to take me around the globe any chance he got, that would come to shape my entire world view.”
Sal also spoke of his father’s life in apartheid South Africa, and his continued love and commitment for his country in spite of its systemic injustice and the three decades he spent living as an ex-pat. “He carried a deep seeded belief in justice, freedom and equality for all peoples to the very end. He scoffed at the futile idea of borders defining humanity. Even more than all of that, it was his undying and childlike love for South Africa and the entire African continent; with its dizzying displays of natural beauty, music, art and culture that mesmerized me more than anything. He was beautifully obsessed with showcasing the endless magic and pageantry of African peoples to a western obsessed world. After a recent trip to Tanzania caused me to share with my dad that my heart was full, he simply said this to me, ‘I can give you my heart to take in the overspill.'”
Masekela was born in Witbank, South Africa April 4th, 1939. He began playing the trumpet at age 14 after receiving the horn from South African bishop and activist Father Trevor Huddleston. The young trumpeter soon began playing with various groups around the country, most notably performing in the orchestra of the hit 1959 musical adaptation of King Kong and in the South African group, the Jazz Epistles.
However, the violence and oppression of the apartheid regime eventually drove Masekela out of South Africa. He left in 1960 at the age of 21, moving first to London, and then arriving in New York City where he studied classical trumpet and immersed himself in the jazz scene of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and more. Masekela learned from trumpet greats including Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, who pushed him to embrace his African influences.
Masekela released his debut album, Trumpet Africaine, in 1962. His first few records featured original compositions, some standards as well as explorations of the South African music, Mbaqanga. He also began to embrace pop and rock, covering songs by the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Aretha Franklin, and notably performed at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. He scored his first hit in 1967 with a rendition of the 5th Dimension’s “Up, Up and Away,” while his cover of “Grazing in the Grass” topped the Billboard charts the following year.
Masekela would release over 40 albums over the course of his remarkable career, collaborating with an array of artists as well, including Harry Belafonte, the Byrds, Marvin Gaye, Fela Kuti, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Herb Alpert. He also continued to refine and evolve as a musician, notably scoring a minor dance hit with “Don’t Go Lose It Baby” from his 1984 album, Techno-Bush.
South Africa and the fight to end apartheid remained a constant presence throughout Masekela’s career. In 1977, he and his ex-wife, the singer Miriam Makeba, released a protest song, “Soweto Blues,” about the 1976 Soweto Uprising. And in 1986, Masekela recorded “Bring Him Back Home” for Nelson Mandela.
Masekela’s success, however, was tinged with personal struggle. He became addicted to alcohol and cocaine, and by the early Seventies was unable to keep a band together, or find a gig or record label. While Masekela would not get fully sober until the Nineties, this low period led him back to Africa, where he toured the continent, partnered with Kuti and formed a new band, Hedzoleh Soundz, with another exiled South African musician, saxophonist Dudu Pukwana.
Masekela finally returned home to South Africa in 1990 after the country lifted its ban on the African National Congress and Mandela was released from prison. Over the next few decades, he continued to write, record and perform, while also publishing an autobiography, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela, in 2004.
In October 2016, Masekela released what would become his last album, No Borders. During an interview, with the South African newspaper City Press, he said of the album, “I don’t believe in borders, because we didn’t create them. I just wanted to do an international, diaspora kind-of feel so people can see that we’re all the same people.”