Hugh Masekela, South African jazz musician instrumental in anti-apartheid fight, dies at 78

Free Press wire reports | 1/26/2018, 12:25 p.m.


Trumpeter and singer Hugh Masekela, known as the “father of South African jazz” who used his music in the fight against apartheid, has died after a decade-long fight with prostate cancer, his family said on Tuesday. He was 78.

In a career spanning more than five decades, Mr. Masekela gained international recognition with his distinctive Afro-Jazz sound and hits such as “Soweto Blues,” which served as one of the soundtracks to the anti-apartheid movement.

Following the end of white minority rule, he opened the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup Kick-Off Concert and performed at the event’s opening ceremony in Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium.

“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,” a statement on behalf of the Masekela family read.

“Rest in power beloved, you are forever in our hearts.”

Mr. Masekela’s son, Sal, recalled memories of being dragged around the jazz clubs of Manhattan, N.Y., when he was 5 by his father.

“He would steal the hearts and souls of innocents with a musical storytelling all his own,” Sal Masekela posted on his Facebook page.

“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.”

Mr. Masekela’s song “Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela),” written while he was in living in exile, called for the release of the then-imprisoned Mr. Mandela and was banned by the apartheid regime.

South African President Jacob Zuma said the nation would mourn a man who “kept the torch of freedom alive.”

“It is an immeasurable loss to the music industry and to the country at large. His contribution to the struggle for liberation will never be forgotten,” President Zuma said in a statement.

South African Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa tweeted: “A baobab tree has fallen, the nation has lost a one of a kind.”

Mr. Masekela began playing the horn at 14 and quickly became an integral part of the 1950s jazz scene in Johannesburg as a member of the band the Jazz Epistles and a member of the orchestra in the groundbreaking jazz opera, “King Kong.”

In the 1960s when he was 21, Mr. Masekela left South Africa and began three decades in exile in the United Kingdom and the United States. He used his music to spread awareness about South Africa’s oppressive system of white minority rule.

He returned to South African in 1990 after Mr. Mandela was freed and the ban was lifted on the African National Congress party. He released more than 40 albums.

His global appeal hit new heights in 1968 when his instrumental single, “Grazin’ in the Grass,” went to No. 1 on the music charts in the United States.

As well as close friendships with jazz legends like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Mingus, Mr. Masekela also recorded with the Byrds and performed alongside stars such as Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix at the famed 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

Still performing 50 years on, Mr. Masekela toured Europe in 2012 with Paul Simon to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Mr. Simon’s classic album “Graceland,” on which Mr. Masekela and several other South African musicians performed.

Mr. Masekela was married to singer and activist Miriam Makeba, known as “Mama Africa,” from 1964 to 1966.

He supported many charities and was a director of the Lunchbox Fund, a nonprofit that provides daily meals to students in Soweto township.

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said in a tweet that Mr. Masekela was “a titan of jazz and of the anti-apartheid struggle. His courage, words and music inspired me, were heard across the world and strengthened the resolve of those fighting for justice in South Africa.”