Hugh Masekela has passed away after a long battle with prostate cancer. The singer, composer and anti-apartheid activist died at age 78.
In a career spanning almost six decades, Masekela gained international recognition with his distinctive Afro-jazz sounds, which he played on the trumpet and also lent his vocals to. Many of his compositions became well-known anti-apartheid anthems such as “Soweto Blues” and “Bring Him Back Home.”
Hugh Masekela’s family released a statement on the morning of January 23 announcing his death: “After a protracted and courageous battle with prostate cancer, he passed peacefully in Johannesburg, South Africa”.
Masekela was married to another great ambassador of South African music, Miriam Makeba, often called “Mama Africa.” The couple was married from 1964 until 1966. Hugh Masekela remarried in 1999 and is the father of American television host Selema “Sal” Masekela. Sal Masekela tweeted that his father had “hung up his horn after a long battle with prostate cancer.”
Masekela’s most recent public appearance of note was at the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup Kick-Off Concert, performing at the event’s opening ceremony in Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium.
A life in exile
Born in Kwa-Guqa Township in present-day Mpumalanga Province in 1939, Masekela was a musically gifted child who learned the piano at a young age. At age 14, he took up playing the trumpet. His first trumpet was given to him by British-born Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, an early white anti-apartheid activist.
By the late 1950s, Masekela was performing to sold-out audiences in Cape Town and Johannesburg as part of the Jazz Epistles – the first South African jazz group to record an album. In 1960 he left South Africa following the March 21 Sharpeville massacre, which saw 69 people brutally killed and resulted in a government ban of large gatherings. Archbishop Huddleston helped in facilitating his exile. Masekela was admitted into London’s Guildhall School of Music and later attended the Manhattan School of Music in New York.
Hugh Masekela focused on his career as a performer throughout the 1960s and 70s, touring music festivals around the world and recording several successful hits in the US such as “Up, Up and Away” (1967) and “Grazing in the Grass” (1968). He also traveled to numerous African countries to set up music festivals including Zaire ’74 and founded the Botswana International School of Music (BISM).
Masekela joined jazz ensembles during this period and collaborated with musicians such as Paul Simon, always spreading his message against apartheid throughout the globe. In the 1980s, he supported Simon during his “Graceland” tour, which featured a number of other South African artists such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Masekela’s ex-wife, Miriam Makeba.
In 1987, Masekela landed a hit with “Bring Him Back Home,” which became an anthem for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison.
Masekela has been hailed not only as outstanding musician but also as one of the greatest activists against apartheid, leading to the peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa in 1994.
Reactions in music and politics
Masekela’s death prompted an outpouring of tributes to his music and anti-apartheid activism. Musicians and politicians alike reacted to the death of one of South Africa’s most beloved musicians.
South African president Jacob Zuma shared a message on Twitter expressing his “heartfelt condolences” on Masekela’s passing, highlighting his achievements as an “acclaimed jazz artist, legendary trumpeter, cultural activist and liberation struggle veteran.”
Listen here to some of Hugh Masekela’s most recognized tunes:
ss/rf (AP, AFP, Reuters)