Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Hugh Masekela

Hugh Ramopolo Masekela (b. Witbank, South Africa, April 4, 1939) is a South African trumpeter, flugelhornist, cornetist, composer, and singer. He began singing and playing piano as a child. At age 14, after seeing the film Young Man With a Horn (in which Kirk Douglas portrays American jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke), he took up playing the trumpet. His first trumpet was given to him by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, the anti-apartheid chaplain at St. Peters Secondary School.

Huddleston asked the leader of the then Johannesburg "Native" Municipal Brass Band, Uncle Sauda, to teach Masekela the rudiments of trumpet playing. Masekela quickly mastered the instrument. Soon, some of Masekela's schoolmates also became interested in playing instruments, leading to the formation of the Huddleston Jazz Band, South Africa's very first youth orchestra. By 1956, after leading other ensembles, Masekela joined Alfred Herbert's African Jazz Revue.

Masekela began to play music that closely reflected his life experience. The agony, conflict, and exploitation South Africa faced during 1950’s and 1960’s, all inspired his music. His music also protested about apartheid, slavery, government; the hardships individuals were living under and reached a large population of people that also felt oppressed due to the country situation.

Following a Manhattan Brothers tour of South Africa in 1958, Masekela wound up in the orchestra for the musical King Kong, written by Todd Matshikiza. King Kong was South Africa's first blockbuster theatrical success, touring the country for a sold-out year with Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers' Nathan Mdledle in the lead. The musical later went to London's West End for two years.

Following the March 21, 1960, Sharpeville Massacre - where 69 peacefully protesting Africans were shot dead in Sharpeville, and the South African government banned gatherings of ten or more people - and the increased brutality of the Apartheid state, Masekela left the country. He was helped by Trevor Huddleston who got him admitted into London's Guildhall School of Music. He visited the United States, and was befriended by Harry Belafonte. There he recorded the pop jazz tunes "Up, Up and Away" and the number one smash "Grazin' in the Grass" (1968), which sold four million copies.

In 1987, he had a hit single with "Bring Him Back Home" which became an anthem for the movement to free Nelson Mandela. A renewed interest in his African roots led him to collaborate with West and Central African musicians, and finally to reconnect with South African players when he set up a mobile studio in Botswana, just over the South African border, in the 1980s. Here he re-absorbed and re-used mbaqanga strains, a style he has continued to use since his return to South Africa in the early 1990s. In the 1980s, he toured with Paul Simon in support of Simon's album Graceland, which featured other South African artists such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba, and other elements of the band Kalahari, which Masekela recorded with in the 1980s. He also collaborated in the musical development for the Broadway play, Sarafina!

In 2003, he was featured in the documentary film Amandla!. In 2004, he released his autobiography, Grazin' in The Grass: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela, which details his struggles against apartheid, as well as his personal struggles against alcoholism from the late 1970s through to the 1990s, a period when he began to blend South African sounds to an adult contemporary sound through two albums he recorded with Herb Alpert, and solo recordings, Techno-Bush, Tomorrow, Uptownship, Beatin' Aroun' de Bush, Sixty, Time, and his most recent studio recording, "Revival". His song, "Soweto Blues", sung by his former wife, Miriam Makeba, is a blues/jazz piece that mourns the carnage of the Soweto riots in 1976. Since October 2007, he is a Board Member of the Woyome Foundation. Find out more at:

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