“I don’t categorize myself”
Hugh Masekela along with Miriam Makeba is the international voice of South African jazz. He has worked together with such greats as Herb Alpert, Miriam Makeba, Harry Belafonte, Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, Dizzy Gillespie and Bill Laswell. That Masekela never could stay in one place for long and has never had a permanent label might have hindered his creativity. Yet, he has managed to literally invent a new music. During his exile in England and the United States, he has composed and produced numerous hit singles and platinum albums, while blending the ethnic music of South Africa with jazz, funk, Afrobeat, disco and electro. After the end of apartheid in 1990, he returned to his homeland.
Hugh Ramopolo Masekela’s interest in jazz was awakened by his father’s shellac record collection. At an early age, he heard the music of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Chick Webb, Ella Fitzgerald, Sy Oliver, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and the then popular South African singing groups such as The Ink Spots and The Mills Brothers. He began playing piano as a child, but by age 14, after seeing the film “Young Man With a Horn” (1950), starring Kirk Douglas as American jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, he found his instrument: the trumpet. Although he later successfully turned to the flugelhorn—and like his role model Louis Armstrong—the cornet, and has proven himself a good singer and keyboardist, the trumpet continues to be his preferred instrument. He received his first trumpet from his supporter, the anti-apartheid pastor Trevor Huddleston, a priest at St. Peter’s school, where Masekela founded the Huddlestone Jazz Band, the first youth orchestra in the country.
Hugh Masekela has been a driving force behind the burgeoning jazz scene on the Cape. He earned his stripes with bandleaders such as Zakes Nkosi, Ntemi Piliso, Elijah Nkwanyana, the saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi Alfred Herbert´s African Jazz Revue, and in the orchestra of the successful musical "King Kong" starring Miriam Makeba. In 1959, he was a success in Cape Town’s jazz scene with Moeketsi and the pianist Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim). At this time, according to Masekela, the neighborhoods Sophiatown and District Six were endangered refuges, where liberalism and creativity flourished: “District Six was a hell of a place ... It was comparable with the old Harlem of the Harlem Renaissance. It was a wonderful place with a lot of clubs and it was very cosmopolitan. It was right next to downtown Cape Town. It was jumping! "
Unlike the Afro-Caribbean-influenced West Africans, the South African scene at that time oriented itself to North American jazz, the popular swing bands and vocal groups, and increasingly to Bebop and Hardbop—influences that Masekela literally absorbed: “We identified with jazz because in those days, jazz showed the excellence of a people who had been enslaved and racially discriminated against (...) They were independent Black people who did not take crap from anybody. Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Count Basie represented triumph in spite of oppression.
In the early 1960s, Masekela immigrated to London because he wasn’t allowed to study in South Africa. With help from Yehudi Menuhin and Johnny Worth, he was able to enroll at Guildhall’s School of Music. Soon thereafter, he followed Miriam Makeba to New York, where they collaborated on music for the successful singer and also got married. Thanks to a grant from Harry Belafonte, Masekela earned a degree at the Manhattan School of music.
In New York, the young student again found the lively Cape Town scene and met the idols of his youth: In the last creative frenzy of American Jazz, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Charlie Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley played in clubs like the Village Vanguard, the Five Spot and the Village Gate. During this time, Makeba’s "Pata Pata" enjoyed international success on the charts, which was a first for a song based on South African rhythms that combined well with Jazzsoli harmonies- something the musicians of the District 6 clubs had been doing all along. Masekela began synthesizing this formula of jazz and pop music, a process reflected by the ironic title of his 1965 album "The Americanization of Ooga Booga". Influenced by funk and R & B of the Motown Hit Factory, Masekela and James Levine founded that same year Chisa Records and began creating a South African sound based on jazz and R & B. Their bands included the Crusaders, who followed Masekela’s suggestion to drop “Jazz" from their name, as well as the self-confidently named band "The Zulus." Masekela’s song "Grazing in the Grass," "a perfect Mbaqanga Song," according to Levine, was a hit in the hot summer of 1968 and landed in the charts between songs by Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, James Brown, Motown and Stax. The time was ripe, the continents moved closer together through the civil rights movement in the USA. A renewed interest in his musical roots led Masekela on a pan-African tour, traveling with the band Hedzoleh Soundz from Ghana to Guinea, Liberia and Ghana, and in London he recorded an album whose title and sound reflects his expanded musical horizons: "Home Is Where The Music Is”, and was influenced by encounters with Fela Kuti in London and Nigeria. Masekela expanded his range of expression with elements of West African Afrobeat.
During the eighties, he was part of a paradigm shift in US pop music, recording dance music under the name Disco Kid for the disco label Casablanca, amongst others, and also pop-y ballads clad in the characteristic all-electric sound of the period. Nevertheless, he continued to pursue his African project. The clear sound of his trumpet and flugelhorn and his preference for polyphonic vocal arrangements penetrated the disco beats and the artificial sound of Linn drums, keyboard and synthetic strings, like in his 1986 club hit "Do not Go Lose It Baby", a preference that resonated the Township vocal groups, ethnic South African melodies, and the blooming jazz of the fifties.
Masekela continued his fight against apartheid and for the liberation of Nelson Mandela in his homeland. He produced the unmistakable hit "Bring Him Back Home", in 1980 gave a Christmas concert together with Miriam Makeba in Lesotho, and composed the musical "Sarafina!" which dealt with the conditions in the South African townships. Even founding a sound studio and the “Botswana National School of Music” at the South African border served to fight apartheid. His album "Techno Bush” was created here in 1984.
Masekela attracted worldwide attention in 1988 as a guest performer on Paul Simon´s "Graceland" tour. Together with fellow countrymen like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba and Ray Phiri, he toured throughout the world - and also performed in South Africa. Although the staging of this tour is controversial- its public appeal is not. The grand stage appearance of the exiled anti-apartheid activists in the "Free Mandela" concert had repercussions. Just two years later, upon Nelson Mandela’s release and the end of apartheid, Masekela returned home.
Since then he has been traveling between continents as both a musician and producer. With albums such as "Time", he has found his way back to an organic sound, blending Latin Jazz and Mbaqanga. In 2004, he published his autobiography, "Still Grazing - The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela", co-authored with Michael Cheers, and in 2007, he celebrated the twenty-year anniversary of his musical "Sarafina!" in South Africa, which was filmed with Whoopi Goldberg in 1992. Since the days of "King Kong" Masekela’s career has always been closely connected to the musical. "Sarafina!" with its captivating vocal arrangements and its literally contagious power of Mbaqanga is his musical legacy in the genre.
Masekela now lives and works in South Africa and the United States. Perhaps the man with the unbroken energy personifies the flow of music and ideas crisscrossing the Black Atlantic - or in his words: "I´m the sum total of my influences, I don’t categorize myself."
*1939 Witbank, South Africa