Hugh Ramapolo Masekela, trumpeter, flugelhorn-player, singer, composer and activist finally succumbed to the ravages of cancer on 23 January, 2018. It was a long and bitter fight. At last, he went the way of all mortals. But Masekela was a bit different. He was not just another South African, he was a citizen of the world. Through his prowess in the show biz world, the musical icon was able to breakdown boundaries and place himself on that great pedestal where only a few mortals tread, the world of immortality.
Musekela was special without the arrogance of his specialness. A man with sparkles perhaps glints in his eyes, such that when he laughed, one almost heard a quick, sharp clink of glasses in one’s head. He was a musician that clicked! He clicked as a man too. In his younger, healthier days, he was a man built like a shattering force, with a large, booming voice that was as harmless as his strong grip on his flugelhorn. He was married to the legend herself, the great Miriam Makeba and later Elinam Cofie.
Much has already been written about Masekela’s life and its landmarks: his stints with the Huddleston Jazz Band in the 1950s on a horn donated by Louis Armstrong; performing in the musical “King Kong” in the 1960s and at the Guildhall and then Manhattan schools of music with singer Miriam Makeba; US pop successes in the 1970s and then touring Paul Simon’s “Graceland” in the 80s and 90s. The great man also had his own piece of music; he had an innovative imagination which he periodically applied to draw it fresh from the flames.
The Huddleston band, plus time as sideman and in stage shows, was the traditional career path for a young musician. But then Masekela broke his first new ground. With fellow originals, including saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, as The Jazz Epistles, they cut the first LP of modern African jazz in South Africa.
Masekela had also joined the pit band and worked as a copyist for South Africa’s first black musical, “King Kong.” This exposure attracted attention to his talent from potential patrons at home and abroad. Pushed by the horrors of the Sharpeville massacre when the South African police shot and killed 69 people on 21 March 1960, and pulled by donated air-tickets and scholarships, Masekela left for London, and then New York.
In the next two decades, Masekela’s re-visioning of his music took many forms. He found America hard, but with wife Miriam Makeba (the marriage lasted from 1964 – 1966), the production skills of Gwangwa, and the support of American singer Harry Belafonte, he proactively introduced audiences to South African music and the destruction of apartheid. But as the title of “Grazin’ In the Grass” suggests, Masekela was also bewitched by other aspects of 60’s counterculture. He dated his addiction back to the alcohol-focused social climate of his early playing years in South Africa, but by the early 70’s he admitted:
“I had destroyed my life with drugs and alcohol and could not get a gig or a band together. No recording company was interested in me…”That depression inspired the song that achieved genuinely iconic status back home in South Africa: the 1974 reflection on migrant labour, “Stimela/Coal Train”.
By the mid ‘80s, the horn man was back in southern Africa, recording “Technobush” at the mobile Shifty Studio in Botswana, and performing for the Medu Arts Ensemble with a Botswanan/South African band, Kalahari. His music shifted again: roots mbaqanga came strongly to the fore to speak simply and directly to people now openly battling the apartheid regime just across the border.
After liberation and his return home, Masekela once more chose fresh directions. In 1997, he banished his addictions and began to showcase the virtuoso player he could have been 30 years earlier without the distractions of the West Coast. He fronted big European jazz bands, and benchmarked a long musical friendship with Larry Willis with the magisterial Friends.
To cap the transformation, the individualistic rebel of the 60s and 70s became an elder statesman of social activism. In 2001, he established a foundation to help other musicians escape addiction. Once more he foregrounded the music of continental Africa, to campaign against xenophobia. And the return of his own illness became the cue to exhort other men to get checked for prostate cancer.
The mortal Hugh Ramapolo Masekela died on 23 January 2018 but the immortal one lives still.
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