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Legendary South African trumpeter HUGH MASEKELA is an innovator in the world music and jazz scene and continues to tour the world as a performer, composer, producer and activist. This iconic artist is best known for his Grammy-nominated hit single, Grazing in the Grass which sold over 4 million copies in 1968 and made him an international star. He later played an integral role in Paul Simon’s tour behind the classic album Graceland, which was one of the first pop records to introduce African music to a broader public.
Hugh Ramopolo Masekela was born on 4 April 1939 in Witbank, near Johannesburg. Masekela showed musical ability from a young age and began playing piano as a child. Inspired by the movie Young Man with a Horn (in which Kirk Douglas plays a character modeled after American jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke), Masekela began to play the trumpet. He was encouraged by anti-apartheid activist Father Trevor Huddleston, who helped him acquire an instrument.
At Huddleston’s request, Masekela then received tuition for trumpet playing from Uncle Sauda, who played for the Johannesburg ‘Native’ Municipal Brass Brand. Masekela soon mastered the trumpet and began to play with other aspiring musicians in the Huddleston Jazz Band – South Africa’s first youth orchestra. Louis Armstrong sent the band a trumpet as a way of supporting their efforts. Masekela later secured a gig in the pit band for the musical King Kong. King Kong was South Africa's first blockbuster theatrical success, touring the country for a sold-out year with Miriam Makeba who would later become Hugh Masekela’s wife. He later formed a band with Dollar Brand (later known as Abdullah Ibrahim) called The Jazz Epistles which became the first African jazz group to record an LP and perform to record-breaking audiences in Johannesburg and Cape Town through late 1959 to early 1960. But life in South Africa was becoming unbearable under the strain of Apartheid oppression. After the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, where 69 peacefully protesting Africans were brutally gunned down, the South African government banned gatherings of ten or more people. Hugh Masekela escaped South Africa with the help of Father Huddleston who enlisted friends like Yehudi Menuhin and John Dankworth, both of whom helped get him admitted into London's Guildhall School of Music. Later on, with the assistance of Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte, Hugh Masekela was accepted into the Manhattan School of Music in New York. His first night in New York found him in several jazz clubs seeing Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie in one, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach at a second and John Coltrane at a third. It was clear that New York would be the perfect place to pursue his jazz aspirations while studying Classical trumpet at school during the day.
Masekela was deeply affected by his life experiences and consequently made music that reflected his experiences in the harsh political climate of South Africa during the 1950s and 1960s. Masekela’s music portrays the struggles and joys of living in South Africa, and voices protest against slavery and discrimination.
Masekela has collaborated with numerous artists in the USA, Africa and Europe including Miriam Makeba, Dizzy Gillespie, Harry Belafonte, Herb Alpert, Fela Kuti (in Nigeria) and Franco (in the Congo). Renowned choreographer Alvin Ailey chose a piece by Masekela to create a work for his world famous Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Masekela also co-created the Broadway smash musical Sarafina that introduced the sounds and passion of South African music to theater audiences worldwide.
Masekela’s work as an activist raised international awareness of the South African government’s restrictive Apartheid policies. In the 1980s Masekela’s hit song, Bring Him Back Home, became an anthem for the Free Nelson Mandela movement. In the 1990’s Hugh finally returned home to South Africa and renewed the musical ties to his homeland and the sounds and rhythms of Central and West Africa, in particular the mbaqanga style. In 2004 he released his autobiography, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela, a stunning memoir that is both heartbreaking and hilarious.
In 2009 Hugh Masekela celebrated his 70th birthday by releasing the CD "Phola" (meaning "to get well, to heal") and with a highly acclaimed performance with the London Symphony Orchestra. In 2010 Hugh created Songs of Migration, a theatrical tribute to the great songs of migrants across the African continent, which was staged at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg and featured Hugh Masekela as the Lead Storyteller. The piece was yet another facet of his continued efforts to protect and nurture South Africa’s musical and cultural heritage, which was nearly snuffed out during the Apartheid era. It makes its U.S debut at The Kennedy Center in Washington DC in October 2012.
In April 2010 he received The Order of Ikhamanga from South African President Jacob Zuma, his nation’s highest civilian honor. When South Africa hosted the 2010 World Cup, Masekela performed at the opening ceremony concert, broadcast worldwide for millions of people, and played his infectious and celebratory Grazing in the Grass. As part of ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup, Masekela and his son Sal Masekela (who is an ESPN Sportscaster) hosted a series of video documentaries entitled Umlando—Through My Father’s Eyes. In February 2011, Masekela joined the rock band U2 on stage in Johannesburg to a crowd of almost 100,000, the biggest concert the band has ever played. Summer of 2011, brought a tour that was highlighted with concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, the Montreal Jazz Festival and New York City’s Summerstage in Central Park. February 2012 brought the release of Hugh’s “Jabulani” on the Listen 2 Africa Series Record Label. From the Zulu word meaning “rejoice,” “Jabulani” recalls several generations of music from wedding ceremonies in South Africa.
Twenty five years after Hugh Masekela first collaborated with Paul Simon and now legendary SA musicians like Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the Graceland album and subsequent tour – the two icons reunited on a Hyde Park Stage on 15 July 2012. The anniversary celebration included the original Graceland band, led by guitarist Ray Phiri as well as Ladysmith Black Mambazo and reggae star, Jimmy Cliff.
April 30, 2012 marked the first International Day of Jazz, produced by the Thelonius Monk Institute and featuring concerts in Paris, New York and New Orleans. The concert at the UN General Assembley featured a who’s who of jazz giants such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Wynton Marsalis. Hugh Masekela had the honor of participating both in Paris and New York. Hugh was introduced by Michael Douglas whose father’s role in the movie “The Man with the Horn” was Hugh’s early inspiration. His blistering performance of Grazin’ featured none other than Stevie Wonder on the harmonica.
This year also saw the launch of Hugh’s own record label House of Masekela. The first recording under this label is a four-CD box set Friends featuring Masekela and American pianist Larry Willis. It is a collection of 40 American jazz standards reinterpreted by the two musicians, whose friendship dates back more than 50 years, hence the title. Larry and Hugh played a series of concerts at The Jazz Standard to celebrate their new release.
In April 2013 Hugh will return to the U.S for an 18 city tour in support of yet another new recording, entitled “Playing @ Work".
Articulate and brilliantly musical in any number of genres, Hugh Masekela has been a defining force in world music, the preservation of South Africa’s musical heritage, the safety and well-being of it’s poorest citizens as well as the struggle for freedom and human rights both in Africa, and around the world.