Hugh Masekela, the trumpeter and anti-apartheid campaigner, has died in Johannesburg at the age of 78. His family have announced that he ‘passed peacefully after a protracted and courageous battle with prostate cancer’.
Born in the South African town of Witbank, Masekela’s interest in music began when he was three. In an interview with BBC Music Magazine he explained how it began when he discovered the gramophone: ‘I thought there was people who lived inside and that’s where I wanted to live’. After seeing the movie Young Man With A Horn, starring Kirk Douglas, Masekela was given a trumpet by his teacher as a deal to keep him out of trouble.
In 1959 he joined the groundbreaking African jazz group The Jazz Epistles which also featured the pianist Dollar Brand (later known as Abdullah Ibrahim). Masekela left South Africa in 1960 to go into exile. He studied at London’s Guildhall School of Music and then in New York where he became immersed in the jazz club scene.
Many hits followed, including US chart-topper ‘Grazing in the Grass’ (1968) with its catchy cowbell rhythms and ‘Ha Lese Le Di Khanna’. His tune ‘Stimela’ recreates, through vocal percussion, the sounds of the ‘cursed’ steam train that took migrant coal miners to Johannesburg. However, it was his 1987 song ‘Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)’ that became an international anthem for the anti-apartheid movement. Masekela returned to South Africa in 1990 when Mandela was released from prison.
Masekela spent decades performing at festivals around the world, with notable appearances at Monterey Pop in 1967 and subsequent spots at the EFG London Jazz Festival, the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Glastonbury Festival and many, many more.
His concerts often revealed his humour, as he recalled the stories behind his songs. ‘Khawuleza’, he said, referred to the alarm call he shouted when he was a child on watch at his grandmother’s illegal shebeen bar. ‘Khawuleza – it means “Mama, hide the booze, the police are coming!”’
South African president Jacob Zuma has paid tribute to the jazz legend, saying: ‘It’s an immeasurable loss to the music industry and to the country. His contribution to the struggle for liberation will never be forgotten.’
Click here to read the BBC Music Magazine interview with Hugh Masekela when he turned 70.