The South African trumpeter, who has died aged 78, spanned a huge variety of styles – from disco-pop to fiercely political jazz
By Robin Densilow | The Guardian | January 24. 2018
Grazing in the Grass
The lilting, easygoing instrumental that became an unexpected, massive hit in America in 1968. After completing The Promise of a Future album, Hugh Masekela decided to add an extra track in the South African mbaqanga township style. It topped the US pop charts for three weeks.
Mace and Grenades
His record company naturally wanted a crowd-pleasing follow-up to Grazing, but he refused to comply. Angered by his experiences in apartheid South Africa and by the discrimination he found in the US, he recorded the furious Masekela album. It was a commercial disaster but included some of his most bravely experimental work, including this track.
Masekela first met the jazz pianist and composer Larry Willis when they were classmates at the Manhattan School of Music. Willis went on to play on Masekela’s 1966 live album The Americanization of Ooga Booga, and in 2012 they recorded Friends together. This exquisite recording from 1970 features Willis and the great South African saxophonist Dudu Pukwana.
In 1973, after 13 years in the US, Masekela moved to west Africa. In Lagos he stayed with Fela Kuti, who introduced him to a young band from Ghana, Hedzoleh Soundz. This is the one of the exuberant, percussive tracks from the album they recorded together.
Stimela (The Coal Train)
This powerful, atmospheric lament for migrant workers toiling in the mines of South Africa is one of his best-loved songs. The original version was recorded with Hedzoleh Soundz and Joe Sample and Stix Hooper from the Crusaders on the I Am Not Afraid album. Later he expanded the song, with an evocative, half-spoken introduction in English leading into a lengthy, pained horn solo and then lyrics in Zulu. It’s a remarkable piece of musical social commentary.
Night in Tunisia
After arriving in the US, Masekela had come under the tutelage of the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who helped him to develop his unique style. This robust tribute is also from I Am Not Afraid, which he regarded as one of his finest achievements, with its blend of African and American influences. It starts with African percussion and a funk riff before his drifting horn work comes to the fore.
1939 – Hugh Masekela is born in KwaGuqa Township, South AfricaMasekela is born near Johannesburg to a health inspector father and social worker mother. He sings and plays the piano as a child. At 14, he sees the Kirk Douglas film Young Man With A Horn and is inspired to take up the trumpet.
1959 – King KongAt school, Masekela played in South Africa’s first youth orchestra, Huddleston Jazz Band. In 1959, he recorded the first album by a South African jazz band alongside Abdullah Ibrahim and Jonas Gwangwa. In the same year, he played in the orchestra of hit musical King Kong.
1960 – Masekela leaves South AfricaThe ANC are banned, and after supporting the organisation for many years, Masekela leaves South Africa for London. He then moves to New York, where he meets Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie.
1968 – Grazing in the GrassBy the late 60s, Masekela was living in California. In 1967, he played at Monterey festival alongside Janis Joplin and Otis Redding. In 1968, his single Grazing in the Grass reached no 1 in the US.
1974 – Zaire 74Masekela returns to Africa in the early 70s, spending time with musicians including Fela Kuti. He organises the Zaire 74 concerts with US record producer Stewart Levine to coincide with the Muhammad Ali/George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing title fight. In 1980, he moves to Botswana.
1987 – Graceland tourMasekela joins Paul Simon for his Graceland tour. Simon’s album was partly recorded in South Africa, and the tour incites protests in London due to the cultural boycott against the country.
1990 – Return to South AfricaMasekela returns to South Africa following the end of apartheid and the release from jail of Nelson Mandela. In 1996, he plays for the Queen and Mandela – by then elected the country’s first black president – during the latter’s state visit to Britain.
2010 – World CupMasekela performs at the opening concert of the world cup in South Africa. In 2012, he rejoins Paul Simon for a tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of Graceland.
Don’t Go Lose It Baby
After moving to Botswana, he shipped in a mobile studio and recorded Techno-Bush, the 1984 album that included this dance track that would help re-establish his career in the US and then on the international circuit. With its solid, stomping beat and clattering keyboards, Don’t Go Lose It Baby proved that he could rework disco with an African edge.
A perennial concert favourite, this was his tribute to Fela Kuti. He jammed with Fela’s band on this song while he was in Nigeria, and recorded it in Botswana for the Waiting for the Rain album. A slinky, funky take on afrobeat, it features an entertaining nod to Fela’s distinctive vocal style.
Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)
One of the classic anti-apartheid anthems of the 80s, and a tribute to both Nelson and Winnie Mandela, it was written after he received a birthday card from Mandela in prison. Released on the 1986 album Tomorrow, this is protest music at its best. It’s defiant but joyful and optimistic, with a powerful, simple chorus leading into an exuberant horn solo.
Shuffle and Bow
Hugh Masekela continued to make great music right until the end of his career. His final album No Borders, released in 2016, included reminders of his travels in west Africa, and this powerful new song, a furious, bluesy scream against slavery.