Looking back at January 23, I still see a dark, tearful cloud hanging over the day. It is a cloud that will forever cast a dark shadow on the day for years to come.
This is the day human kind woke up to the devastating news of the death of South African trumpeter, flugelhornist, cornetist, composer, singer and activist Hugh Ramapolo Masekela.
The news of the death of a man who uncompromisingly spoke against injustice particularly apartheid in South Africa shattered me. He was an artist who in his music vividly portrayed the struggles and sorrows, as well as the joys and passions of his country.
Upon hearing the depressing news my mind immediately set off on a thrilling journey, reminiscing the few moments I “met”, in music, the man we affectionately called Bra Hugh.
My mind took me to a packed EPCOR CENTRE, a hotbed for theatre, entertainment, events and cultural gatherings in downtown Calgary, Canada at the Jack Singer Concert in 2013.
Masekela shocked all and sundry when he challenged his lead guitarist to a clash.
The way his vocal guitar imitations and the guitar play gelled made me fall in love with the song The Market Place, to date it remains my all-time favorite of Hugh Masekela’s songs. These are memories that will be hard to erase.
Thoroughly embarrassed, the guitarist hid himself amongst the baggage only to emerge after 90 minutes asking to audition for a spot on with the band, the rest as the adage say is history.
The naughtiness in market place triggered my thirst for more and gladly so, I met the many colours of Hugh Masekela. The political activist and anti-apartheid hero in Mandela (Bring Him Back Home) and Soweto Blues ,to the philanthropist and servant mentality in Thuma Mina, to the society leader,anti afro-phobia and anti- racist personality in the song Chileshe, Just a few of the many musings in song that make Hugh Masekela a great.
Born on the 4th of April 1939 in KwaGuqa Witbank, South Africa, Hugh Masekela who for many times has confessed that he was bewitched by music at a tender age. He started by playing piano at the age of nine, before getting his first trumpet from Father Trevor Huddleston, a chaplain at his boarding school, the instrument many have now known him for.
Masekela grew as a skilled trumpeter and from humble beginnings playing with in the Huddleston Jazz Band with school mates as South Africa’s first youth orchestra to Alfred Herberts’s African Jazz Revue in 1956, Todd Matshikiza’s Kong, and Abdullah Ibrahim and in Manhattan Brothers with famed vocalist Miriam Makeba, also Masekelas ex-wife.
The artist’s star continued to rise and he used his skills and seemingly angry husky voice to share in music his agony, conflict, and exploitation South Africa faced during the height of apartheid, a feat that forced the artist to go into self-imposed exile for more than 30 years.
Masekela was helped by the same man who bought him his first trumpet Father Trevor Huddleston and was admitted into London’s Guildhall School of Music in 1960 before a scholarship took him to the Manhattan School of Music in United States where he befriended American singer, songwriter and activist Harry Belafonte and also being tutored like Louis Armstrong.
It was this time that Hugh Masekela was encouraged by many colleagues to start his unique brand of jazz music and this led to the release of his debut album Trumpet Africaine in 1962 signalling the start of a journey that spanned more than 40 albums winning many awards including a nomination for Best World Music Album for his 2012 album Jabulani and in the process earning himself the name “the father of South African jazz”.
Hugh Masekela used his music and status to challenge the ills of society, African governments, fighting alcoholism and openly exposed the system of colonization for the many problems in Africa.
At one point the artist was once quoted saying “In 20 years from now, if people ask my grandchildren who they are they will say, it is rumoured we used to be African many years ago”, such was his stance on the erosion of African culture and values.
Masekela was not only a South African treasure but through his music he became an African hero, his exploits on the international scene made him a darling for many across the seas and his trumpet played mellow , high and sharp tone through the various rudiments of music that will forever be remembered by many.
In an interview with Zeinab Badawi in June 2015 on BBCs HardTalk, Masekela confessed that he was troublesome and restless and while bed ridden with a flue, father Trevor Huddleston asked him what would make him happy and he responded by saying “father, if I can get a trumpet I won’t bother anybody” but did bother us.
Not in a bad way but enough to awaken our sleeping love of jazz that laying idle in many of us. He did bother us by asking many questions in song that sought to make us a better people.
Hugh Masekela will forever be remembered for his music, outspokenness and fighting spirit.
In my view, Bra Hugh has been promoted from the “Market Place”, where he spoke well, to a place of glory whose only promise we all dire for that is eternity.
May his lovely soul Rest in Peace and his music and teachings will forever be with us for eternity, indeed a well-travelled five decades of music.