On the passing of Hugh Ramopolo Masekela (1939-2018)

Posted on January 26, 2018

It is with great sadness that the Faculty of Humanities learned about the passing of the legendary South African jazz musician, ‘Bra’ Hugh Ramapolo Masekela, at the age of 78. After a long struggle with prostate cancer, Masekela, who was born in Witbank on 4 April 1939, passed away at his home in Johannesburg on Tuesday, 23 January 2018.

As a boy, Masekela was blessed with a trumpet as a gift from Father Trevor Huddleston and immediately set about ‘honing’ his signature ‘Afro-jazz’ sound. This continued well into the late 1950s, when he became a political exile and subsequently spent 30 years abroad. At a time when the pressure of the apartheid system was intensifying he, along with others, took South African music to the global stage with the musical King Kong. During his time in exile he studied at the Manhattan School of Music in New York and was influenced by some of the great American masters of jazz, such as Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane. Under the tutelage of American jazz greats, Masekela was encouraged to further develop his own musical sound and style, which led to the release of his 1963 debut album, Trumpet Africaine.

He went on to record almost 50 more albums and his 1968 single, Grazin’ in the Grass, enjoyed million-dollar success. His artistic mission to raise international awareness of the atrocities of apartheid was clearly demonstrated by his poignant anthems Bring Back Nelson Mandela, Stimela and Soweto Blues.

His many accolades include honorary doctorates from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (2017), Rhodes University (2015), the University of York (2014) and the Vaal University of Technology (2011). He was a recipient of the Order of Ikhamanga: South African National Orders Ceremony (2010), the African Music Legend award: Ghana Music Awards (2007) and Lifetime Achievement Awards from the World Music Expo in Copenhagen (2011) and the Channel O Music Video Awards (2005). In 2002, he received the International Award of the Year: BBC Radio Jazz Awards. Masekela and Mbongeni Ngema, his music and lyrics collaborator, were nominated for Broadway's 1988 Tony Award for Best Score (Musical) for Sarafina! He won two Grammy awards and seven nominations.

Hugh Masekela will be remembered for his immense contribution to music and his involvement in the struggle against apartheid. While his funeral will be a private event attended only by his close family, a memorial service will be held at the University of Johannesburg Soweto Campus on 28 January.  

- Author Faculty of Humanities

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