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Hugh Masekela RIP
AR Wood , January 23rd, 2018 10:26

The great South African jazz trumpeter and human rights activist died this morning, at home in Johannesburg

Hugh Masekela, the South African jazz trumpeter and anti-apartheid activist, has died at home in Johannesburg aged 78.

Born in Witbank, east of Johannesburg, on 4 April 1939, Masekela was inspired to play jazz after watching a film about Bix Beiderbecke, and was given his first trumpet by anti-apartheid activist Father Trevor Huddleston. Along with Abdullah Ibrahim and others, he formed the Jazz Epistles in 1959 and they became the first African jazz ensemble to record an album.

Masekela moved to London and then New York following the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. He entered the jazz scene there with the help of Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte, met Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, among many others, and had hits with his version of ‘Up, Up And Away’ and with ‘Grazing In The Grass’. A few years ago, he said of his early career in the US, “I thought maybe I could play in the Jazz Messengers, with Art Blakey, but everybody told me, Forget about bebop. If you can use what you know and bring some of that home stuff into it, we’ll learn something from you and you’ll stand out. And it worked.”

Masekela played played at Monterey Pop in 1967, alongside Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Otis Redding. He and producer Stewart Levine organised the Zaire 74 festival in Kinshasa, where James Brown, Miriam Makeba and Bill Withers played to 80,000 people in Kinshasa. He played with Paul Simon (and supported Simon’s work with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and other South African musicians on Graceland). In 1980, he set up a mobile recording studio in Botswana, just over the border from South Africa, and founded the Botswana International School of Music. He wrote Makeba’s great staple song ‘Soweto Blues’, and his 1987 hit ‘Bring Him Back Home’ became part of the fight for the release of Nelson Mandela.

During an interview with Robin Denselow in 2010, when he opened the London Jazz Festival, Masekela said: “When I look at the time that I have left, all of a sudden I have to hurry up and do a lot of things… I’ve found out there’s a thing called enjoying life, and I think it’s better to enjoy life than let it eat you up.”