This past Tuesday the music world lost South Africa’s Hugh Masekela, who died at 78 after a long struggle with prostate cancer. Along with Miriam Makeba, Masekela helped spread the joy and spirit of South African music around the world. They were musical messengers in the struggle against apartheid rule in South Africa.
We know of many great South African artists and bands—for example Sibongile Khumalo, the Mahotella Queens, Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), not to mention the Boyoyo Boys and others who helped Paul Simon make Graceland a huge success. Few musicians, however, have had the reach and impact of Makeba and Masekela. They were once married (1964-1966). Both were exiled, but survived, triumphed, and made a lot of records. Both performed at the Hollywood Bowl during my tenure there.
Masekela was born in 1939 in Witbank, South Africa, a coal-mining town near Johannesburg. The 1950 film Young Man with a Horn starring Kirk Douglas inspired Masekela to become a trumpet player. Much later, one of his idols, Louis Armstrong, performed in South Africa and personally gave the young Masekela a trumpet.
Masekela performed around South Africa in the mid-50’s as part of various dance bands. In 1960 he joined The Jazz Epistles, which featured a young pianist named Dollar Brand, who later changed his name to Abdullah Ibrahim. The band became very popular, with a new, jazzy, and swinging sound that was distinctly South African in feel. They would break attendance records in Cape Town and other cities.
I spoke with Masekela only once, on the phone from New York. He told me about his life in New York in the 1960’s. Masekela loved the tropical Latin music of Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, and Eddie Palmieri, and he talked about the Palladium shows he saw. Perhaps it was no accident, then, that his biggest hit, “Grazing in the Grass” (1968), prominently features a cowbell, an instrument used widely in Latin music but rarely in South African music. The song rose to #1 on the Billboard charts.
This week’s hour-long tribute features famous songs like “Grazing,” “Stimela” aka-“Coal-Train,” and “Mandela (Bring Him Back Home)” recorded when Nelson Mandela was still incarcerated on Robben Island. We hear Masekela’s song about Fela Kuti, a big inspiration, and a long version of Fela’s classic song “Lady.” We feature some mbaqanga (soul jive) choral music in the track “Ibala Lam” and other songs recorded in Johannesburg’s Market Theater after his return from exile.
We end the show with a 12” single version of Solomon Linda’s 1937 classic “Wimoweh,” but with a twist. Here it’s called “The Lion Never Sleeps” instead of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” recorded in 1986 for the U.K. label Zomba/Jive. Hugh Masekela lived a full life, and left us with so much wonderful music. This hour-long feast is but a taste of his musical legacy.
Masekela narrated his autobiography in 2004’s Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela, written with D. Michael Cheers. For a fascinating and indelible account of South African music under apartheid, I cannot recommend highly enough the BBC documentary Rhythm of Resistance, filmed underground in South Africa in the 1970’s.
I came across this playful and joyous video of Masekela’s song “Makoti” (Bride), in which he steals the bride:
Rhythm Planet Playlist for 1/26/18
- Hugh Masekela / “Grazing in the Grass” /The best of Hugh Masekela/ Columbia
- Hugh Masekela / “Abangoma (Song of Praise)” / The Americanization of Ooga Booga / MGM
- Hugh Masekela / “Ibala Lami” / Live at the Market Theatre / Sheer Sound
- Hugh Masekela / “Mandela (Bring Him Back Home)” / Hope / Indieblu Music
- Hugh Masekela / “Change” / Time / Columbia
- Hugh Masekela / “Fela” / Sixty / Shanachie
- Hugh Masekela / “Lady” / Live at the Market Theatre / Sheer Sound
- Hugh Masekela / “Stimela (Coal Train)” / Hope / Indieblu Music
- Hugh Masekela / “Wimoweh (The Lion Never Sleeps)” / The Lion Sleeps Vinyl / Jive