Hugh Masekela, South African trumpeter and anti-apartheid activist, dies at 78
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Hugh Masekela, South African trumpeter and anti-apartheid activist, dies at 78

Hugh Masekela, a South African trumpeter, singer and activist whose music became symbolic of the country's anti-apartheid movement, even as he spent three decades in exile, has died in Johannesburg aged 78.

Masekela came to the forefront of his country's music scene in the 1950s, when he became a pioneer of South African jazz as a member of the Jazz Epistles, a bebop sextet that included the pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and other future stars. After a move to the United States in 1960, he won international acclaim and carried the mantle of his country's freedom struggle.

South African jazz musician Hugh Masekela  at Westminster Abbey, London, 2012.

South African jazz musician Hugh Masekela at Westminster Abbey, London, 2012.

Photo: Leon Neal

His biggest hit was Grazing in the Grass, a peppy instrumental from 1968 with a twirling trumpet hook and a jangly cowbell rhythm. In the 1980s, as the struggle against apartheid hit a fever pitch, he worked often with fellow expatriate musicians, and with others from different African nations.

In 1986, Masekela founded the Botswana International School of Music, a nonprofit organisation aimed at educating young African musicians. The next year, he played with Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the Graceland tour, which was not allowed in South Africa but made stops in nearby countries. On that tour, Masekela often performed Mandela (Bring Him Back Home), a hit song demanding justice for Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned on Robben Island at the time.

Masekela tended to emphasise the breadth of the musical tradition that inspired him. "I was marinated in jazz, and I was seasoned in music from home," he said in a 2009 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "Song is the literature of South Africa."

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He added, "There's no political rally that ever happened in South Africa without singing being the main feature."

Throughout his time in exile,Masekela remained committed to seeing democracy implemented in his home country. His son, Sal Masekela, noted in a statement that "despite the open arms of many countries, for 30 years he refused to take citizenship anywhere else on this earth" because of his belief "that the pure evil of a systematic racist oppression could and would be crushed".

Ramopolo Hugh Masekela was born on April 4, 1939, in Witbank, South Africa, a coal-mining town near Johannesburg. His father, Thomas Selema Masekela, was a health inspector and noted sculptor; his mother, Pauline Bowers Masekela, was a social worker.

As a young child, Masekela was raised primarily by his grandmother, who ran an illegal bar for mine workers. "One of the great things also about Witbank was that all these people brought their different music and their different stories about where they came from," he said of the miners. "As a little kid, I hung out with them in the backyard and the kitchen and I knew all about their countries."

When he was 12, he entered St Peter's Secondary School, a boarding school in Rosettenville, closer to Johannesburg. By that point he had already begun to pursue music, singing in groups on the street and learning piano in private lessons.

He grew infatuated with the trumpet in 1950, after seeing Kirk Douglas in the film Young Man with a Horn, based on a novel inspired by the life of the trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke.

Masekela is survived by a son, Sal Masekela, from his relationship with Jessie Marie Lapierre; a daughter, Pula Twala, from his relationship with Motshidisi Jennifer Ndamse; and his sisters, Elaine and Barbara Masekela. Three other marriages also ended in divorce.

The New York Times

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