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Hugh Masekela
You’re not going to meet a more charismatic man than Hugh Masekela. There’s the face that crumples like newspaper when he smiles, which is often, and the laugh, which tells a story of smoke and liquor, of good times past.
Profile of an Icon
Hugh Masekela

You’re not going to meet a more charismatic man than Hugh Masekela. There’s the face that crumples like newspaper when he smiles, which is often, and the laugh, which tells a story of smoke and liquor, of good times past. Then there are the hugs, enormous and bountiful, distributed freely and without prejudice.

Finally there’s the music. It ties everything together and is as much a part of him as the fingers on his hands. It’s what he was born for. “I knew I was going to be a musician. I was obsessed with music from the time I emerged,” he says.

The best artists are sponges, particularly early on. They consume and absorb, and they learn from the greats. So it was with Masekela, who grew up listening to records on the gramophone in his grandmother’s house. He was raised on Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, inhaling their sound and making it his own.

Initially a piano player, Masekela changed direction at the age of 14 after witnessing Kirk Douglas’s performance as Bix Beiderbecke in Young Man with a Horn. The incident famously inspired Masekela to take up the trumpet, and he pestered the chaplain at his school, the anti-apartheid preacher and activist Trevor Huddleston, to acquire one for him.

Huddleston wrote to Louis Armstrong, who sent one of his old trumpets to South Africa. Masekela and his band – called The Huddleston Jazz Band in tribute – were featured on the cover of local magazines The Transvaler and Farmer’s Weekly. After finishing at school Masekela set out on tour with the Manhattan Brothers, performing in the musical King Kong.

These were formative times for the young jazzman. Sweating crowds, heaving stages and nights soaked in brandy were his introduction to the life of a musician. His romance with Miriam Makeba also began at this time. She was the star of the show, while he was a trumpeter in the chorus. Even then, his charm shone through. Their romance continued on and off until their marriage in 1964, and didn’t end with their divorce in 1966.

Makeba and Masekela were South African pioneers in the United States, both exiled by the apartheid government. He left in 1960, at the time of the Sharpeville Massacre, for what was meant to be a four-year stint at the Manhattan School of Music. The apartheid government took his passport while he was overseas, and that was it: he was unable to return for more than 30 years, until after the release of Nelson Mandela.

“I didn’t leave to go stay somewhere else, I left to go to school and I stayed 26 years longer than I had planned,” he says of his time in exile.

At one point, homesick and worried because he had started to dream in English, he went to Central Park in New York and started talking to himself in Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans – township slang. He capered around, waving his hands, stamping his feet and filling the air with his presence: Soweto style.

His antics drew a crowd, who, concerned that the performer’s mind had flown the coop, approached a policeman to check that the South African was alright. Masekela explained that he was missing home and scared of losing his language. He won a friend in the cop, naturally.

The loneliness of being uprooted from South Africa didn’t stop Masekela from explosive musical creation. In 1968 his single Grazing in the Grass, a Philemon Hou composition, went to number one. He found out that it had topped the charts after playing the song at the Newport Jazz Festival.

It was the last song of his set, and pouring rain had set in. The band played through the downpour, and finished the song; the crowd, rapturous and covered in mud, refused to let them off stage. They played the track a second, and then a third time. Afterwards, record executive Russ Regan broke the news: “Stupid, that’s the number one song in the world.”

As well as recording and performing, Masekela hung out with characters as diverse as Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix, who he met at Monterey in ‘67. Hendrix’s personality complemented Masekela’s: the former laid back and smooth, the latter effervescent and vibrant. The pair ploughed through clubs and parties whenever they were together, and talked about going on the road. That ended up being one of Masekela’s few unfulfilled dreams; Hendrix died before it could be realised.

Eventually Masekela came back to Africa, touring through Ghana and Zambia, and spending time in Lesotho. Of particular note during that period was the festival that he helped to organise in Zaire as part of the build-up to the Rumble in the Jungle, the fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Zaire 74, as it came to be known, ran for three days and was a musical success – in spite of a conflict with promoter Don King over royalties.

Masekela’s time in Africa was fruitful, but a return to South Africa was a pipe dream. He came as close as he could, playing a concert in 1980 with Miriam Makeba in Lesotho. 75 000 people came to watch, migrating across the border from South Africa. During the exile years this was as close as Masekela and Makeba would get to the country whose soul drove their music. He moved to Botswana in 1980, living in Gaborone and collaborating with local musicians.

In the 1980s, South Africa was a dangerous place, as the paranoid and isolated apartheid government held on to power with a stranglehold. Their reach extended into the rest of Africa, and in 1985 the defence force raided Gaborone, killing 12 people. Masekela was living there at the time.

“We just lay there as we heard the bombs and the machine guns going,” he says of the tragedy. While he was able to avoid the gunfire and explosives, others in his circle were targeted and killed. The dead included George and Lindi Phahle, ANC members in exile and friends of Masekela’s. He left Botswana after the massacre, moving to England until South Africa opened her doors to him after Mandela’s release in 1990.

Masekela has seen and done it all, living the life of a musician on the road. Eventually the excess of that life caught up and overwhelmed him. He checked into rehab for drug and alcohol abuse in 1997, and began to write. The result was his autobiography, Still Grazing: the Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela, which was published in 2004.

It’s a thoughtful book that captures his manic life, and an honest one. He doesn’t try to insert himself into a narrative that wasn’t his, and admits freely that Miriam Makeba was far more politically active than he was. His political views came through in his music, in songs such as Bring Him Back Home, which called for the release of Nelson Mandela, and in Sarafina!, a musical about the Soweto Riots. He talks about the loneliness of exile, and the joy that he felt upon returning to his home country.

“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says of coming back to South Africa, but his anger towards the way things were and still are has not abated. The effects of oppression did not disappear with the advent of democracy: “there is still a lot of injustice in South Africa because the poverty levels never changed where the poor people are,” he says.

Still, there’s hope. South Africa is liberated, and its future is in the hands of its own people. In Masekela’s words, “we beat the monster that had us underground for four centuries.” Now he’s focused on heritage restoration, bringing back African pride in customs and traditions.

That feeling that he had in Central Park in New York, of losing his language and culture, is one that he can see South Africans today experiencing, whether they realise it or not. He is worried that the sense of identity that tradition creates is slipping away, being overwhelmed by imported products and values. It’s a challenge that he’s happy to take on, though: the fact that he can means that he is home, and that South Africa is free, to shape its destiny on its own terms.

Play video
In Conversation
Hugh Masekela
Filmmaker and photographer Adrian Steirn extracts highlights from the incredible life and times of iconic musician Hugh Masekela, who, among other gems, reveals why he was called “Slow Poison” on the soccer field, and why he would talk to imaginary friends in New York’s Central Park during his 30-year exile from South Africa. In conversation with Hugh Masekela, Steirn learns about the musician’s incredible life, his love for music, and his response when Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
A Portrait
A series of behind-the-scenes images reflecting the 21 Icons team at work.
Grazing in the Grass was Masekela’s first smash hit. Recorded in 1968 and released in the US, it reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, selling over four million copies. This image captures Masekela playing his beloved trumpet in a pine tree forest – a place he takes refuge in while at home in the sprawling city of Johannesburg. This is African Jazz.