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HUGH MASEKELA,
1939-2018

Hugh Masekela, the trumpeter, cornetist and singer from South Africa who mixed pop covers with sounds of Africa and jazz and would become vibrant voice in the anti-Apartheid movement, died Tuesday in Johannesburg. He was 78 and had a long battle with cancer..

Masekela had a #1 pop hit with his “Grazing in the Grass” in 1968. It would be his only crossover success, but it set the stage for him to record more than two dozen albums, perform at the Monterey International Pop Festival, organize the Zaire 74 festival around the Muhammed Ali-George Foreman boxing match, tour with Paul Simon at the time of Graceland, score a Broadway musical and record “Bring Him Back Home,” the 1987 anthem to free Nelson Mandela.

Masekela , inspired to play trumpet after seeing Young Man With a Horn, left South Africa for London in 1960 after building a reputation in The Jazz Epistles with pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, then known as Dollar Brand. The musicians were forced to leave Johannesburg after the government drove the music scene underground in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre. He soon moved to the U.S. to study classical trumpet at the Manhattan School of Music.

Mercury released his debut, Trumpet Africaine, in 1962 and Grr in ‘64; MGM put out The Americanization of Ooga Booga, in 1965. It was his fourth release, Hugh Masekela ’s Next Album in 1966, that tapped into his ability to interpret American pop music through a prism of jazz, R&B and South African mbaqanga. On that record, he covered songs by The Beatles, Paul Simon and others, hits such as “It’s Not Unusual” and “California Dreamin’.”

A move to UNI Records found him mixing the pop songs with his own material. Masekela was the first artist to record “Grazing in the Grass,” which writer Philemon Hou had based on Masekela ’s “Emavungweni"; it would earn Masekela his first of three Grammy nominations.

In the ‘70s he recorded for Blue Thumb, Casablanca and A&M, performing music that was a mixture of Afrobeat, jazz and funk, collaborating with artists such as Fela and Dudu Pukwana. The ‘80s found him continuing to work with African musicians, many of them fellow expatriates, and following Fela’s advice to record longer groove-oriented pieces.

In 1986, Masekela toured with Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, often performing “Bring Him Back Home” which he wrote for Mandela, who was then imprisoned. Warner Bros. released the single, which South Africa promptly banned, though it became a rallying cry for the political prisoner’s release. He then wrote the music for a Broadway show, Sarafina!, which earned him a Tony nom.

"Hugh Masekela taught me more about South African culture and politics than anyone I ever met," Simon tweeted. "A great musician and songwriter, he was also one of the wittiest people I’ve known. I never had a bad moment in his company."

In the 1990s, Masekela established the Musicians and Artists Assistance Program of South Africa for musicians dealing with substance abuse.

Since 2104, Soweto has held an annual Hugh Masekela Heritage Festival.

Among the many awards he received are the Order of Ikhamanga in 2010, honorary doctorates of music from Rhodes University and the University of York; and Lifetime Achievement Awards from MTV Africa, Channel O and the Ghana Music Awards.

 

 

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