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 The Lasting Impression of Hugh Masekela

As tributes pour in for the legendary South African trumpeter, vocalist, composer and arranger uBab’uHugh Ramopolo Masekela, the world reflects on his global contribution to music, his role in the anti-apartheid movement, and his advocacy for civil rights and heritage restoration in Africa.

During a recording career spanning 60 years he reached audiences worldwide with an astonishing number of diverse projects. And, in his eighth decade, Hugh Masekela remained at the forefront of international music making: giving the opening concert for the 2010 World Cup; appearing with U2 on their 360˚ world tour; performing with Paul Simon on the Graceland 25th anniversary world tour; and touring South Africa, the United States, and Europe in 2012 with the musical Songs of Migration he co-created with director James Ngcobo.

The key to appreciating the range of Bra Hugh’s work was succinctly identified by the Governor of the United States Virgin Islands. Announcing the creation of Hugh Ramopolo Masekela Day in March 2011, Governor de Jongh pointed out that “throughout his career, [Hugh] Masekela has created music that closely reflects his life’s experiences and vividly expresses the struggles, hardships, conflicts and sorrows of the people of South Africa, as well as the joys and passions of his country.”

Hugh Masekela, trumpeter, singer, composer, and anti-apartheid activist was born in Kwa-Guqa, Witbank, South Africa in 1939. Aged 14 he was sent a trumpet by Louis Armstrong following a request from the celebrated human rights proponent and Isitwalandwe recipient Trevor Huddleston. Three years later Bra Hugh made his recording debut in the Father Huddleston Band, recording three tracks that have been widely anthologised and studied worldwide. One of these tracks, ‘Ndenzeni Na?’ asks the question ‘What have I done?’

Of course anyone who considers what Hugh Masekela has done, what he achieved, is met by an embarrassment of riches, and consequently there are many possible versions of this tribute.

For this particular version I’d like to think back to the years 1958-1960 when Bra Hugh was establishing himself as a professional musician in South Africa. It was a time when many places in the world were experiencing rapid and profound changes, for example post-war expansion in Europe, East Asia and the USA, and independence from colonial rule in sub-Saharan Africa.

Although the case was very different in South Africa as the apartheid state steadily tightened its stranglehold on the country via a programme of racially discriminatory legislation, it was precisely during this period that Hugh Masekela was involved with three notable musical firsts.

In 1959 he made two recordings with visiting US pianist John Mehegan – Jazz in Africa volumes 1 & 2 – which, according to Jonas Gwangwa, were the first South African LP records to feature black musicians.

Secondly, a year later, Bra Hugh recorded Verse One with the Jazz Epistles (Abdullah Ibrahim, Jonas Gwangwa, Kippie Moeketsi, Johnny Gertze and Makhaya Ntshoko). This is widely acknowledged as the first all-African jazz LP recorded in South Africa.

And lastly, having joined the band of Todd Matshikiza’s influential hit musical King Kong, Bra Hugh was part of the first full-scale musical to be entirely created in South Africa by South Africans, and which was a multi-racial artistic collaboration on a scale hitherto unimaginable in South Africa.

King Kong was received to critical acclaim when it opened in 1959 and John Matshikiza remembered that on the opening night Winnie and Nelson Mandela came down from the Treason Trials in Pretoria and heard a subtle message of support for the Treason Trialists woven into the opening anthem ‘Sad Times, Bad Times (Ityala lalamadoda)’.

I mention these three events partly because they are extraordinary in their own right, but also because they illustrate the combination of pioneering musical work, political activism, and searing social comment that came to define Bra Hugh’s career.

Following the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, Hugh Masekela entered a prolonged period of exile and became a key voice in the international anti-apartheid movement, releasing a string of politically aware hits, notably the anthemic ‘Bring Him Back Home’ calling for the release of Nelson Mandela, and ‘Stimela’ which exposed the plight of, and contribution made by, migrant workers.

Early advice offered to Bra Hugh by Harry Belafonte, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis to ‘play music from your home’ was heeded and consequently through the decades he has carried ‘the rhythms, languages, memories, social consciousness and spirit of South Africa worldwide,’ using his global reach to spread the word about heritage restoration in Africa.

It is therefore unsurprising that in 1983 Mothobi Mutloatse’s second volume of South African literary anthologies ‘aimed at burying the myth that the dispossessed majority did not have a voice’ was inspired by, and named after, Hugh Masekela’s album Reconstruction.


Bra Hugh’s career is notable not only for the use to which it has been put, but also his unusual ability to combine the roles of respected jazz artist, pioneer in the world music movement, and commercially successful pop artist. His No.1 hit ‘Grazin’ In The Grass’ sold four million copies worldwide and he has toured, played, and recorded with many of the world’s most significant contemporary musicians including Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Bob Marley, and Mano Dibango, whilst remaining firmly relevant to a younger generation of South African artists, recording with Thandiswa Mazwai, Jimmy Dludlu, and Mafikozolo, amongst others.


I’m not sure that he would have embraced the title ‘father of South African jazz’ that the many news reports are currently restating.  He remained acutely aware of those who came before him, and the people around him. As he said many times over the years “I’m not the kind of musician you hear saying ‘my music’. I don’t think I have music. I think everybody gets music from the community they come from. And every note that I play, every song that I’ve ever worked on, is really from the people.”


Hugh Masekela held a number of honorary doctorates from universities around the world, was presented with the African Music Legend award in the 2007 Ghana Music Awards, and granted the Gold medal of the Order of Ikhamanga in 2010 by the South African government in recognition of his exceptional achievement in the arts.


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About the author

Jonathan Eato is a composer and saxophone player with interests in a wide range of contemporary musics, jazz, improvisation, South African popular music, interdisciplinary performance, music and postcoloniality, and music for dance. Jonathan has made several works with choreographer Jacky Lansley and is responsible for sound design and composition with Hannah Bruce and Company Jonathan publishes on South African jazz music, and…

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