The fallen hero

The jazz fraternity is mourning the passing of musician Hugh Ramapolo Masekela on Tuesday after a battle with prostate cancer.  He was 78 years old.  Masekela will be remembered for his style of playing trumpet, singing and dancing to his popular tunes that earned him worldwide recognition and the nickname “Bra Hugh”.  Besides the trumpet, he also played flugelhorn, trombone and cornet.  He was also a composer and bandleader.

With close to 50 albums from 12 different record labels, he was one of the most world travelled jazz artists.  His popularity went far beyond South Africa, the country of his birth.  Bra Hugh performed to audiences in many African countries, Europe and the United States where he spent most of his years in exile running away from the brutal apartheid regime back home.  He was a son of Thomas Selena Masekela and Pauline Bowers Masekela who are both deceased.

Born in KwaGuqa Township, eMalahleni, he showed a keen interest in music from a very young age.  He received his first trumpet from Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, a staunch opponent of the white minority government. The instrument was previously used by the famous Louis Armstrong. Following the brutal Sharpeville massacre where protestors were shot dead as they were demonstrating against pass laws, he left South Africa where his first home was London’s Guildhall School of Music.  He later moved to the Manhattan School of Music, New York, where he studied classical trumpet.

A very young Hugh Masekela

It was also in the US where he rose to prominence as a trumpeter and vocalist, performing with so many icons including Harry Belafonte, Herb Alpert, Lee Ritenour, Dave Grusin, Mirrian Makeba (whom he was once married to), and Paul Simon to mention but a few.  His tune Grazing in the Grass reached the number 1 spot in the United States in 1968.  Despite the success he enjoyed in the US, he returned to South Africa in 1990 at the time of the negotiations for a new dispensation.  His last studio album was a 2016 release entitled No Borders.

Marabi Jazz Lounge spoke to different radio presenters, producers, a photographer and musicians asking them how the passing of this legend has affected them and what do they think his contribution was to international jazz. “Thank you, Bra Hugh, for the privilege of your friendship, the opportunity to you afforded me to ask you questions, and to have you lead me on one of the most significant projects I have worked on”, Kaya FM jazz presenter Brenda Sisane said.  She added that Masekela taught her to see less borders while constantly seeking a bond with fellow Africans to harness a collective wealth as a continent. Chicago based radio host at WFMT and jazz vocalist Dee Alexander told Marabi Jazz Lounge that “Bra Hugh is now an ancestor.  May his spirit rest in power and peace”.

Another musician who is deeply affected with the passing of the legend is vocalist Zoe Masuku.  She described the passing of Masekela as not just a loss for South Africa but the world as a whole but is happy that Bra Hugh was given the recognition he deserved while still alive. “While it’s sad to lose him, we must also be realistic that he has been struggling with his health”.  Masuku’s former band member at Heels Over Head and keyboard player Lindi Ngonelo, said Masekela inspired young and upcoming musicians, and stood for the rights of the artists.  “It is quite a loss to our country; however, I do believe he fought a good fight and ran his race to the very end”, Ngonelo added.

Lwanda Gogwana with his mentor

Lindo Mbhele recalls that Masekela was close friends with one of his relatives while living in the US.  “We always gave each other hugs”, the jazz photographer told  Marabi Jazz Lounge.  Hope is one of the albums by Bra Hugh that Mbhele has in his collection.  He added that Masekela ‘recorded timeless classics that will echo long into the future’.  For trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana, the passing of Masekela has saddened him because he never got an opportunity to sit and chat with his mentor.  Listening to his music had an influence in Gogwana’s choice of playing the trumpet. His voice on the horn was South African and Pan African.  He sang melodically and imitated the African drum with his unique approach, and consistency over the years”, Gogwana said.  

“Me spending two days with Bra Hugh in Denmark will stay in my mind for as long as I live”, former Metro FM and SAFM producer Stan Bodibe told Marabi Jazz Lounge.  Bodibe was invited to a six-week arts festival at the Images of Africa, and Masekela was invited to talk on the state of South African music at the time.  That evening, when Manu Dibango performed, he invited Masekela on stage and he brought the house down driving the Danes to a frenzy and they screamed for more, as if he was the main act.

Freeman Gumede with his icon

Jazz presenter at Kangala Community Radio Services and online radio station Ubuntu FM Africa, King Vusi Mavuthela said Masekela was a giant and a master when it came to blowing the trumpet. “I will always admire his bravery when he came to stay in Botswana in the 80’s and made recordings with Soul Brothers and other musicians”, Mavuthela said. As someone who was exiled at the time, that was a huge security risk for Masekela. “He was a very versatile artist who could work with any musician”, Mavuthela added.

“He was a soldier that ran his race before most of us were born.  He left a huge mark on the South African music scene”, bass player Nkululeko Freeman Gumede told Marabi Jazz Lounge.  The passing of Masekela touched him deeply because he felt it was so sudden. Gumede always had a wish of playing with his icon because of his appreciation of his music. “It is now up to us as young musicians to continue where Bab’ Hugh has left”, he added.

The family of the late musician has announced that the funeral will be a private affair which will only be open to family members, close friends and industry.  Several memorial services will be held in the country and abroad to honour the fallen giant that contributed immensely to the music industry and was a good South African ambassador in the field of arts and entertainment.  May his soul rest in peace.