Hugh Masekela was one of the few jazz artists to penetrate pop music with covers of “Up, Up and Away” in 1967, and the next year, the through-the-roof hit “Grazing in the Grass” — his unique trumpet style rendering the mellow, laid-back tune a strutting ode to quintessential cool.
Released in May and topping the charts by July, “Grazing in the Grass” eventually sold upwards of four million copies, ratcheting an already successful career in Africa to international stardom.
Masekela subsequently guested on mainstream recordings by The Byrds with their hit “So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star” and Paul Simon for “Further to Fly” from The Rhythm of the Saints.
Remaining rooted in the music he’d played since a teenager when, according to lore, Louis Armstrong gave him his first trumpet, Masekela continued blending Western jazz with both his classical training (Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba, whom Masekela would later marry, had secured him a scholarship to study at the Manhattan School of Music) with the seminal sound Fela Kuti popularized as Afrobeat.
“I was marinated in jazz, and…seasoned in music from home. Song is the literature of South Africa,” Masekela said in an Australian Broadcasting Corporation interview. New York University professor Michael A. Gomez dubbed him “the father of South African jazz.”
Not as widely publicized in the U.S. as his records and concert appearances (Monterey International Pop Festival, touring with Paul Simon) Masekela, from the outset, was a dedicated activist against apartheid and other injustice, including government-induced poverty in his native South Africa.
Following the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in which police murdered 69 protesters, the government banned gatherings of more than 10 Black people at one time, forcing him to perform in underground clubs before deciding to leave South Africa.
Relocating to New York, where he stayed roughly three decades in exile, he remained faithful to the fight back home, at length releasing 1987’s Tomorrow with the single “Bring Him Back Home,” which became an anthem for the movement to free the imprisoned Nelson Mandela.
His song “Soweto Blues,” sung by Miriam Makeba, was written to mourn the Soweto riots of 1976. Among his several social initiatives, he chaired the board of directors for the nonprofit Lunchbox Fun, providing deal meals for students of township schools in Soweto. He was also a board member of the Woyome Foundation for Africa.
Trumpeter, singer and activist Ramopolo Hugh Masekela succumbed to prostate cancer on January 23 in Johannesburg at age 78.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes readers’ responses to P.O. Box 50357, Minneapolis, MN 55403.