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Hugh Masekela Turns 75

Trumpeter, flugelhornist, composer, lyricist, singer, bandleader – Hugh Masekela is many things. But he’s also a legend, an icon, in a time when those labels are all too-easily thrown around. An elder among South Africa music history, “Bra Hugh”, as he’s affectionately known, is the real deal. And not just because he turns 75 today. But because he actually earned his respect – his contribution to music, not just South African but the greater jazz genre, cannot be denied. 

From the Billboard-chart topping, 1968 Grammy-nominated single Grazin’ in the Grass, to the esteemed NYC jazz circles he moved in, which included the likes of Harry Belafonte, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, to his relationship, both professional and personal, with Miriam Makeba, and his openness in overcoming his drug and alcohol addictions, Bra Hugh’s milestone is truly worth celebrating.

To mark his 75th birthday, Bra Hugh will be spending the occasion in New York City, a place he lived for many years, in exile from Apartheid South Africa. It was in New York he studied at the Manhattan School of Music. It was in New York that he was encouraged by Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong to hone his own unique sound. And so, it will be in New York that he celebrates this milestone of birthdays.

Born in the nondescript small town of Witbank on Johannesburg’s East Rand, April 4th, 1939, Bra Hugh’s story is well-known. Given a trumpet by Father Trevor Huddleston, he soon formed the Huddleston Jazz Band, before going onto great acclaim with the Jazz Epistles (alongside Kippie Moeketsi, Abdullah Ibrahim and Jonas Gwanga).

Leaving South Africa at the age of 21, after a stop in London, he headed for New York City, where he began what would be 30 years in exile. Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Mingus, Harry Belafonte – he mingled with them all. Even when he moved to Los Angeles, he found new fans ready to welcome him – from actor Peter Fonda to singer David Crosby. All the while, his music helped draw attention to the struggle in South Africa – Stimela and Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela) in particular.

I’ve been fortunate enough to interview him a number of times, and even though he can give journalists a hard time, I’ve found him to be quite obliging and warm in our encounters. I’ve interviewed his son too, US TV presenter Sal – an ace guy.

In the US, where he still continues to tour, Bra Hugh was honoured during the weekend of Barack Obama’s re-inauguration with the Keeper of the Flame award from the African American Churches in DC. At the time, Masekela said Obama’s second term was a dream realized. “It’s like a summary of the last 74 years of the life I have lived; where I have seen people of African ancestry all over the world march towards the gates of freedom.”

A few weeks later, he was up for his second Grammy – in the Best World Music category, but lost out to a posthumous Ravi Shankar record. Still, he keeps recording and playing his music – seeing him in Central Park during the first summer of my life in New York remains an absolute highlight. With over 40 albums under his belt, it’s worth raising a glass – albeit of sparkling water – to this titan of the music world.


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Hugh Masekela performs at Jazz at Lincoln Centre on Friday April 6th.

 [Top pic: hughmasekela.co.za]

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