Hugh Masekela-The Father of South African Jazz

Hugh Masekela is a renowned composer, singer, and trumpeter. He is popularly known as the father of South African jazz. During his lifetime, Hugh made exceptional jazz compositions. He wrote a variety of anti-apartheid songs including Bring Him Back Home and Soweto Blues. Hugh passed away in January 2018 at the age of 78. In this post, we highlight the early life, music career and achievements of the legendary Hugh Masekela.

Early Life

Hugh Masekela was born in April 1939 in KwaGuga Township, Witbank. His parents were Thomas Selena and Pauline Bowsers his father worked as a health inspector while his mother was a social worker. Hugh spent most of his early life with his grandmother where he developed an interest in playing piano and singing.

Hugh started playing the trumpet when he was 14 years old. Archbishop Trevor Huddleston bought him the first trumpet. Trevor was a chaplain at St. Martin’s School. He requested Uncle Sauda, the leader of the Johannesburg brass band to teach Hugh the fundamentals of playing trumpets. Masekela was a quick learner. Some of Hugh’s classmates started playing different instruments thus forming the famous Huddleston Jazz Band.

Upon hearing about the band, Louis Armstrong sent a trumpet to Hugh as a gift. Masekela led his bandmates until 1956 before joining the African Jazz Revue. Hugh composed several anti-apartheid South African jazz songs between 1950 and 1968. They enabled him to reach a huge population. In 1958, the Manhattan Brothers toured South Africa. Hugh produced the King Kong which Todd Matshikiza had written. He toured the country for a year together with Nathan Mdledle and Miriam Makeba.

Musical Career

Hugh joined Johnny Gertze, Kippie Moeketsi, Makhaya Ntshoko, and Dollar Brand to form the Jazz Epistles in 1959. They performed in several concerts in Cape Town and Johannesburg for a year. However, in March 1960, more than 65 people were killed in the Sharpeville. The government banned people from assembling in groups of 10 or more. Trevor Huddleston helped Hugh to leave the country. John Dankworth and Yehudi Menuhin helped him get admission into the Guildhall School of Music.

Masekela joined the Manhattan School of Music in 1960 to study classical trumpet. He married Mariam Makeba in 1964. However, they divorced in 1966. Several years later, Hugh, collaborated with Central and West African musicians. He re-absorbed mbaqanga strains after returning to South Africa. During his lifetime, High received many honors including the Doctors of Music in Rhodes University, an Honorary Doctorate in Music in the University of York and the Legend Award during the 2016 MTV Africa Music Awards.

Hugh Masekela’s Best Songs

Hugh produced several South African jazz songs such as:

  • Chileshe
  • Grazing in the Grass
  • Going’ Back to New Orleans
  • Stimela
  • Khawuleza
  • Thuma Mina
  • Mafikizolo feat. Hugh Masekela
  • Thanayi feat. Thandiswa Mazwai

Hugh Masekela will be remembered for his amazing South African jazz songs. He fought for the rights of oppressed South Africans by taking part in different anti-apartheid campaigns. The ruling government exiled him for 30 years. Hugh returned to South Africa in 1990 after the release of Nelson Mandela. He succumbed to prostate cancer in January 2018 in Johannesburg at the age of 78.