Biographies of Famous South Africans
Special South Africans


Those who have inspired us. Those who have defined us.
Those who have shown us our common humanity.

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Hugh Masekela
Musical Legend
4 April 1939 - ?

Hugh MasekelaEver since the day in 1954, at age 14, when Archbishop Trevor Huddleston gave him a trumpet, Masekela has played music that closely reflected his beginnings as a little boy in Witbank. He was born as Hugh Ramopolo Masekela. He began singing and playing piano as a child, but inspired by the film, "Young man with a Horn", where Kirk Douglas portrays an American Jazz trumpeter, he took up trumpet. All the township music styles from the 1930īs to the 1960īs form an intrinsic part of his musical roots.

After Huddleston asked the leader of the "Johannesburg Native Municipal Brass Band", Uncle Sauda, to teach him the rudiments of trumpet playing, Masekela quickly proceeded to master the instrument. His dedication soon led to the formation of the Huddleston Jazz Band, South Africaīs very first youth orchestra. After playing in other dance bands, he joined the star studded "African Jazz Revue" in 1956. Following a Manhattan Brothers tour of the country in 1958, he ended up playing in the orchestra for the "King Kong" musical, written by Todd Matshikiza. "King Kong" was South Africaīs first blockbuster theatrical success, which toured the country for a sold-out year. The musical later went to Londonīs West End for two years.

At the end of 1959, Dollar Brand (later known as Abdullah Ibrahim), Kippie, Jonas, Makhaya Ntshoko, Johnny Gertze and Masekela formed the "Jazz Epistles", the first African group to record an LP and perform to record-breaking audiences in Johannesburg and Cape Town through late 1959 to early 1960.

After the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, Masekela left the country with the help of Trevor Huddleston, Yehudi Menuhin and Johnny Dankworth, who got him admitted into Londonīs Guildhall School of music. Miriam Makeba, who was already enjoying major success in the USA, later helped him to get admission to the Manhattan School of Music in New York. It was during this time that Masekela had the opportunity to meet Louis Armstrong, who a few years earlier had sent the Huddleston Jazz Band a trumpet after the chaplain told the trumpet king about the band he had helped start back in South Africa.

Masekela began recording extensively with Miriam Makeba and can be heard adding his trumpet, singing and arranging talents to some of the singer's very best records. By 1963, the trumpeter had recorded his first solo album, "Trumpet Africaine", and the following year, Makeba and Masekela were wed. The trumpeter's breakthrough record was his engaging 1965 live performance, "The Americanization of Ooga Booga". Masekela and Makeba divorced in 1966 and the trumpeter relocated to Los Angeles. Soon he began to take charge of his own career. He attracted a sizable following on the West Coast and could be heard playing his brand of African popular music alongside emerging rock bands (The Byrds, Bob Marley). He began recording for MCA's hip pop subsidiary, UNI Records, where he released his biggest hit ever, "Grazing In The Grass" (1968).

By the beginning of the 1970īs he had attained international fame, selling out all of Americaīs festivals. Heeding the call of his African roots, he moved to Guinea, then Liberia and Ghana after recording the historical "Home is where Music is" with Dudu Pukwana. After a tour and two duet albums with Herb Alpert, Masekela and Miriam Makeba played a Christmas Day concert in Lesotho in 1980 where 75 000 people attended (they had been away from the region for 20 years). In 1981, Masekela moved to Botswana where he started the "Botswana International School of Music" with Dr. Khabi Mngoma. His record label, "Jive Records", helped him to set up a mobile studio in Gaborone from which came the hit single "Donīt Go Lose It Baby". In 1985, he unexpectedly had to leave for England after the South African Defence Force killed his friend George Phahle, his wife Lindi Phahle and 14 other people suspected of being terrorists.

While in England, Masekela recorded one of his greatest works, "Tomorrow", which featured his next hit, "Bring Him Back Home" (a.k.a. Mandela). While there, Masekela also conceived, with playwright and songwriter Mbongeni Ngema, the mbaqaga musical "Sarafina", which found great success on Broadway in 1988. After touring with Paul Simon's "Graceland" - which included a number of prominent African musicians including Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba - Masekela finally was able to return home, following the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990. In 1991, Masekela launched his first tour of South Africa, called "Sekunjalo - This Is It!" with the bands Sankomota and Bayete. The extravagant four-month tour sold out throughout the country's major cities.

Now, happily living in his South African home, Masekela continues to maintain a very active tour schedule, spreading his musical message of peace, harmony and unity throughout the world. He can still be heard adding his distinctive voice and flugelhorn to many other world artists' recordings.


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