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Hugh Masekela, BraHugh as he was respectfully known, was diagnosed with cancer in 2008. He suffered for many years and died in 2018 at the age of 78.


Hugh Masekela made his debut as a trumpet player in the golden age of South African Jazz. As a youngster,one of his best friends was Sophiatown trumpet player StompieManana, who took him to see a movie “Young Man with the Horn.” This is the story of trumpet player Bix Beiderbecke, starring Kirk Douglas and Dorris Day, with the trumpet parts played by Harry James.

It inspired Masekela to play. As a teenager he had a major breakthrough when the godfather of trumpet entertainers, Louis Armstrong responded to an advert in Drum Magazine calling for a new trumpet for the young Masekela. Armstrong donated a trumpet and Trevor Huddleston arranged to collect it from him in Ghana.

This golden era of South African jazz was typified by the 1,4,5 musical style of marabi music. Musicians played clubs for lengthy hours at a time and needed to be consistent in the rhythm and tempo to keep the people dancing through the night. Masekela maintained this ability to entertain throughout his career, although playing in an endless variety of styles and collaborations all over the world.

His exile to New York in the 60sexposed him to the most famous trumpet player of the era, Miles Davis. Davisdiscouraged him from playing jazz. He told him to play his African music. On Masekela's seminal 60s album, “The Americanization Of Ooga-Booga,” he presents a mixture of Brazilian, African and American compositions. These regions would remain strong influences throughout his career.

Masekela was a champion anti-apartheid activist. His musical talent gained him a substantial following across the world which he used to speak out and fight against apartheid.

His friendship turned marriage with Miriam Makeba was a large part of his life and career. Makeba refers to him as, “Little Hughey,” in her autobiography because he was several years younger than her and always envious of her success. This resulted in their break up after only two years of marriage but they remained collaborators all the way until he published his autobiographynamed ‘Grazing in the Grass.'

Masekela co-produced Makeba's 80s albums with Stanley Toddand 90s albums with Victor Masondo in the. His song Soweto Blues, spoke of the 1976 youth protest was adapted by Makeba for her stage repertoire. “Stimela” was a famous Masekela composition about the migrant mine workers as they longed for home.


Masekela met FelaKuti in Nigeria in the 70s. And they both inspired each other to making unique music. Fela went to Ghana and started playing Highlife music at the AfroSpot which lead to afrobeat music. Masekela recorded several of his own albums in Ghana in the 70s. And there are other recordings all over the world that may never be found, such was the extent of his work.

When the Rumble in the Jungle Fight went to the Congo he teamed up with his lifetime friend Stewart Levine and approached Don King for the rights to organise the concert. James Brown, Gladys Knight and the Pips were some of the artists he flew out from America for the show. The album featuring the African artists for that show has just been released. It is called Zaire 74.

As a performer and entertainer, his combination of dancing and playing alongside a tightly knit band became his recipe for success. He combined good musicianship with a focused entertainment element and that resulted in strong audience reception.

After returning from exile in 1990, Masekela began to form an evolving South African band. Along-standing member of the band is the bass player Bra Fana Zulu. The band features Cameran Ward on guitar and Lee-roy Sauls on drums amongst others. They have made one recent album, “Playing at Work.”

In the 90s he lectured in the Music Department at the University of KwaZulu Natal. His influence on all young African trumpet players is huge.

Masakela was a master of the trumpet tongue-ing technique - fast, sharp and strongly articulate. His phrasing, style and approach were unique.When he transferred this style to flugel horn, he created a very distinct and recognisable style. It was typically South African.

As a musician and entertainer, Masekela knew how to get alot of attention from the crowd, because he would entertain and dance togetherwith he audience. Sometimes he would play the Cow Bell or tell stories. For the band to keep the focus was a discipline. “He was a teacher to all his musicians and strict about staying true to the music. He got very upset with people who tried to be experimental. He was true to his listeners.”

Masekela often had a very busy schedule. He was playing sometimes two gigs in a night and only sleeping four hours. And doingten gigs like that in a row.When he turned 70 he did a world tour starting at Cape Town International Jazz Festival, and it didn't stop. He played the Hollywood Bowl, Japan, Australia and the States. One of his last appearances was at Bushfire festival in Swaziland during Africa Month (May).

His career was long and consistent. Saxophonist Barney Rachabane pointed out that he sustained it because he was an athlete. He did Tai-Chi.

Hugh Masekela has accumulated a lifetime's worth of recognition for his artistic and activist contributions, from heads of states to his ardent grassroots fans. Prominent among his achievements are his being granted a Gold Medal of the Order of Ikhamanga in 2010 by the South African Presidency, and having March 18 proclaimed Hugh Masekela Day in the US Virgin Islands. He received an Honorary Doctorate in Music from Witslast year.

He implored young graduates to become the “new pioneers of African heritage restoration”.

He said, “We have long relegated our magnificent vernacular literature to the dust and insect-infested floors of crumbling old warehouses in favour of imported writings, hip hop, rap, and other forms of trending fashions that distance us as far as possible from our rich traditional legacy. We need to study, learn, and teach our traditional music, dance, oral literature more in our own academies and educational institutions where we can revive and redevelop what has been lost from the positive content of our glorious history.”


Trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana said,

The first step to teaching children is to teach them in their mother tongue. A child is more of value when they come to the world with their mother tongue and the language of the world. We will be much more valuable musicians as a South African and a jazz musician of the world.

To play in King Kong was an incredible opportunity and sit in the same seat as Bra Hugh and walk in one of his first footsteps in being a professional musician. When I was asked to be a part of the show I was reluctant because it was a theatre show meaning I reject a lot of other gigs. But what attracted me was Bra Todd Matshikisa being a product of the marabi period. I am interested in studying marabi in that it is the foundation of African jazz. There are small opportunities play solo extracts in the theatre show, behind the dialogue. Every night I was given an opportunity to be true to the language. And I was the orchestrator of the musical, specifically the big band parts where I would readapt the original score.

His phrasing was to play some sort of drum rhythm: two drums playing low and high pitches. He was speaking the rhythm and emulating the drums in his improvisation. He plays a lot of rhythm. He used to teach in Durban and he had a very unique way of tongueing which is not considered in the western approach as the correct way, but it is very true to what South African jazz requires from its musicians to speak the language. His tongue was fast sharp and strongly articulate. Students said his tongueing was incredible and incredibly fast. And it comes to trying to emulate the drums and the tongue accentuates that part of the language.

Why the flugelhorn? It is easier to articulate fast phrases on the trumpet than the flugelhorn. No one in the world plays the flugelhorn like him. He had that thing, a consistency to speak in the language and make it work in the flugelhorn. It is a warm sound and a mellow sound and he made it both – he made it speak with articulating fast phrases. And at his late age to still play the way he played. As a trumpet player I know how difficult it is to not play the trumpet for a couple of days and then come back to it and play it as well as you played it the last night. At his age to play the instrument as he did and even dance, he was incredible fit. He had been playing all his life – maybe that is why.

He was a soldier. That is why he ran such a long and consistent career.

The longest standing member and is his musical family is Bra Fana Zulu. I played with his previous pianist Randel Scheepers in Ray Phiri's band and the way he speaks of Bra Hugh – he was a teacher and he was adamant in being strict about consistency and staying true to the music. African music in general is repetitive – it is repeated pattern that we do melodies and improvisation and variations on top. The consistency of playing a pattern repeated for however long – because sometimes you see the band playing and Bra Hugh walks on and speaks to the crowd – they could play the same phrase for 20 minutes and he was strict, “Don't go anywhere else!” As jazz musicians we get bored quickly. After you have played a phrase you want to play other things and apparently he would get really upset with people trying to be too experimental. He was true to listening and doing it properly and maintaining the energy throughout whilst doing it. It is very difficult to do that. Imagine how you internalise the music when you are able to do that. And that is the aim.

To keep people dancing goes back to the marabi days and playing in the clubs for many hours – you needed to be consistent in the tempo that you played so people could dance all night. His roots are of that era, so he knows it is important to do that. He was a musician as well as an entertainer which sometimes we miss. We see the entertainment and sometimes miss the point because the musician is entertaining and getting a lot of reception from the crowd. And we lose sight of his musicianship because of that. But did you hear the consistency of his tone? Imagine combining that level of entertainment with that musicianship? And did you know he is going to another gig after this. He is only going to sleep 4 hours and play the next gig? And do you know he has played ten other gigs doing the same thing?

Miles Davis was also deeper. He was spiritual in his approach to the music and how you play the note and the intention behind the note. Maybe he felt that there was intention lost when he was playing other styles of music. Maybe he played one South African song at that set and he felt the intensity.

Trumpeter Etuk Ubong said,

Hugh Masekela is a masterpiece that was gifted to Africa. He has influenced a lot of people and me in particular about music, appreciating our culture and standing for the life of the black people, reflecting the African culture to the world to make it an equal standard and support Africa as a good continent.

I met him first at the jazz festival and he was making us laugh cracking jokes. I met him again when I was studying at UCT. I got his phone number and called him. He told me “What is there to create? We have all played all the music.” It was an encouraging conversation to want to do more. I said to myself my music has a strong message and represents the struggle of humanity.

Hugh Masekela rescued me from the airport from the hands of the police. He got me bailed on the phone when I told the policeman at the airport that I am friends with Hugh Masekela. They didn't allow me to go through the scanning machine with my trumpet valve oil and that became an issue for me, I came to South Africa with this valve oil so how come you don't want to let me leave with the valve oil. So they arrested me and called some offices and took me away. I said do you know Hugh Masekela he travels with this valve oil also and he travels all around the world. So he spoke to them on the phone. I got to the station at the airport and he spoke to the boss. Hugh Masekela told me that these people are not people you should argue with because they might stop you from travelling or come to South Africa. And that was the last time I saw Hugh. I heard he was sick and cancer and I was thinking of calling him one of these days to check up on him.

At the Artscape youth jazz festival in Cape Town 2016 we played a tune as tribute to him and took an improvisation which reflected his style of playing. There has been a huge influence; tongeuing technique, phrasing, style of playing and approach. I transcribed his trumpet solos in the early years of learning to play jazz music because I was exposed to his music like Stimela.

His flugelhorn playing I prefer because it has that distinct style other than the trumpet. When you find Hugh Masekela playing standards you can hear that this is Hugh Masekela. He is one of those unique horn players who has got that distinct sound. And you hear the influence of South Africa. And you always hear South African in his lines.

Hugh Masekela was one of the few. When Fela came back from England he was still playing jazz. Hugh Masekela told Fela he should find his own space and that there is a lot to explore from Nigerian music and he should create something unique. And that was one of the things that really inspired Fela to make afrobeat music. And that is why he went to Ghana and started playing Highlife music at the AfroSpot.


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