Still Grazing: A tribute to Hugh Masekela

A heritage philosopher and seer, a stylish man and raconteur par excellence 1939 – 2018

Trumpeter extraordinaire and African Heritage activist Hugh Masekela’s name was synonymous with the struggle and freedom of this country. His death is mourned the world over.

He’s gone. He’s gone. See, it’s not like we weren’t expecting it. Cause baby, we were. At least in my own stupid little God games I had put Bra Hugh’s departure date at around the end of June 2018. I didn’t see his death coming. Mainly for selfish reasons. I felt I needed to be better prepared. But death never prepares anyone. Not even family. It might send us some signals, but no one knows for sure when the dark ripper will come knocking.

Completely distraught

I was not aware at all until about 8am on the day when a friend woke me up asking me to confirm news of Bra Hugh’s death. It felt like a bad dream. Especially since I had only gone to bed in the wee hours of the morning.

I refused to believe what I was hearing and promptly tried to go back to bed but couldn’t. Immediately, calls, texts, WhatsApp chats started flooding in from everywhere. Promptly, I rerouted ’em to his family. I was and still am distraught. Completely crushed. Gawd. Am stumped for words.

I used to refer to him as “Hughskie” , one of the few nicknames the late soul icon Marvin Gaye called him by, and he would call me “Die Dondiez.” Hughskie will live forever. He was a soul of immense presence and a dynamic social and cultural prophet. The best Mzansi, the continent and the universe has ever gifted humanity with.

Raconteur par excellence

An artist with verve and unique talents, a heritage philosopher and seer, a stylish man and raconteur par excellence, we will never see or experience his type again. He was of his era. But also saw the future. Thus he was a futurist. He was more than a mentor or an uncle I never had. He was a friend. Age and pain disappeared whenever we were together. Hughskie was selfless and generous in spirit and with his time and wisdom.

He raised not only a nation but the world. His departure will reverberate from Gugulethu to Beijing, from Jozi to Compton, from Harare to Pyongyang. Quincy Jones was right on the money in his description of Hugh Masekela: “A Phenomenal Spirit.”

His biography is extensive and impressive. The official Hugh Masekela website writes his life story out as follows:

Hugh Masekela was a world-renowned flugelhornist, trumpeter, bandleader, composer, singer and defiant political voice who remained deeply connected at home, while his international career sparkled. He was born in the town of Witbank, South Africa in 1939. At the age of 14, the deeply respected advocator of equal rights in South Africa, Father Trevor Huddleston, provided Masekela with a trumpet and, soon after, the Huddleston Jazz Band was formed.

Masekela began to hone his, now signature, Afro-Jazz sound in the late 1950s during a period of intense creative collaboration, performing in the 1959 musical King Kong, written by Todd Matshikiza, and, soon thereafter, as a member of the now legendary South African group, the Jazz Epistles (featuring the classic line up of Kippie Moeketsi, Abdullah Ibrahim and Jonas Gwangwa).

In 1960, at the age of 21 he left South Africa to begin what would be 30 years in exile from the land of his birth. On arrival in New York he enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music. This coincided with a golden era of jazz music and the young Masekela immersed himself in the New York jazz scene where nightly he watched greats like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach. Under the tutelage of Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, Hugh was encouraged to develop his own unique style, feeding off African rather than American influences – his debut album, released in 1963, was entitled Trumpet Africaine.

In the late 1960s Hugh moved to Los Angeles in the heat of the ‘Summer of Love’, where he was befriended by hippie icons like David Crosby, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. In 1967 Hugh performed at the Monterey Pop Festival alongside Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, The Who and Jimi Hendrix. In 1968, his instrumental single ‘Grazin’ in the Grass’ went to Number One on the American pop charts and was a worldwide smash, elevating Hugh onto the international stage.

His subsequent solo career has spanned 5 decades, during which time he has released over 40 albums (and been featured on countless more) and has worked with such diverse artists as Harry Belafonte, Dizzy Gillespie, The Byrds, Fela Kuti, Marvin Gaye, Herb Alpert, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and the late Miriam Makeba.

In 1990 Hugh returned home, following the unbanning of the ANC and the release of Nelson Mandela – an event anticipated in Hugh’s anti-apartheid anthem ‘Bring Home Nelson Mandela’ (1986) which had been a rallying cry around the world.

In 2004 Masekela published his compelling autobiography, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela (co-authored with D. Michael Cheers), which Vanity Fair described thus: ‘…you’ll be in awe of the many lives packed into one.’

In June 2010 he opened the FIFA Soccer World Cup Kick-Off Concert to a global audience and performed at the event’s Opening Ceremony in Soweto’s Soccer City. Later that year he created the mesmerizing musical, Songs of Migration with director, James Ngcobo, which drew critical acclaim and played to packed houses.

That same year, President Zuma honoured him with the highest order in South Africa: The Order of Ikhamanga. 2011 saw Masekela receive a Lifetime Achievement award at the WOMEX World Music Expo in Copenhagen, the first of many. Numerous universities, including the University of York and the University of the Witwatersrand have awarded him honorary doctorates. The US Virgin Islands proclaimed ‘Hugh Masekela Day’ in March 2011, not long after Hugh joined U2 on stage during the Johannesburg leg of their 360 World Tour. U2 frontman Bono described meeting and playing with Hugh as one of the highlights of his career.

Never one to slow down, Bra Hugh toured Europe with Paul Simon on the Graceland 25th Anniversary Tour and opening his own studio and record label, House of Masekela at the age of 75. His final album, No Borders, picked up a SAMA for Best Adult Contemporary in 2017.

Continuing a busy international tour schedule, Hugh used his global reach to spread the word about heritage restoration in Africa – a topic that remained very close to his heart. He founded the Hugh Masekela Heritage Foundation in 2015 to continue this work for generations to come.

Hugh Masekela’s son, Sal Masekela wrote on social media last week about his father who has “hung up his horn”:

It is with heavy heart that I confirm that my father, Hugh Ramapolo Masekela, has hung up his horn after a long battle with prostate cancer. It is difficult to comprehend that this moment is real. To me, my father has always been both ageless and immortal. Of the countless shows I had the honor of watching my dad perform, each felt like the first, each felt brand new.

At the age of 5 he first introduced me to the late night halls of Manhattan’s The Village Gate and Mikell’s, where he would steal the hearts and souls of innocents with a musical storytelling all his own, passionately and relentlessly transporting them to the farthest reaches of Africa with both voice and trumpet. It was these moments and his choosing to take me around the globe any chance he got, that would come to shape my entire world view.

As a product of the meticulously designed apartheid regime of 20th century South Africa, my fathers life was the definition of activism and resistance. Despite the open arms of many countries, for 30 years he refused to take citizenship anywhere else on this earth. His belief too strong that the pure evil of a systematic racist oppression could and would be crushed. Instead he would continue to fight.

He was right. To know Hugh Masekela was to know no matter class, creed, color, religion or any other made up distinctions, he stood with empathy and compassion, locked arm in arm with the distressed, displaced and downtrodden everywhere and anywhere on this planet.

He carried a deep seeded belief in justice, freedom and equality for all peoples to the very end. He scoffed at the futile idea of borders defining humanity. Even more than all of that, it was his undying and childlike love for South Africa and the entire African continent; with its dizzying displays of natural beauty, music, art and culture that mesmerised me more than anything. He was beautifully obsessed with showcasing the endless magic and pageantry of African peoples to a western obsessed world. After a recent trip to Tanzania caused me to share with my dad that my heart was full, he simply said this to me, ‘I can give you my heart to take in the overspill’.

Our giant will be sorely missed, but boy will he live on through his music.

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