Hugh Ramapolo Masekela was a South African trumpeter, flugelhornist, cornetist, composer and singer. He has been described as the "Father of South African jazz." He was born on April 4, 1939, in Witbank, South Africa, a coal-mining town near Johannesburg. His father, Thomas Selema Masekela, was a health inspector and noted sculptor; his mother, Pauline Bowers Masekela, was a social worker.
Through the support of Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, an influential anti-apartheid advocate and organizer, Hugh Masekela learnt the rudiments of trumpet playing from the leader of the then Johannesburg "Native" Municipal Brass Band, Uncle Sauda. He thereafter formed his first band the Huddleston Jazz Band (South Africa's first youth orchestra) with his school mates.
From 1954, Masekela played music that closely reflected his life experience. By 1956, after leading other ensembles, Masekela joined Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz Revue. During a trip to the United States, he met Louis Armstrong, who gave him a trumpet as a gift.
The agony, conflict, and exploitation South Africa faced during the 1950s and 1960s inspired and influenced Hugh Masekela to make music and spread political change. He was an artist who in his music vividly portrayed the struggles and sorrows, as well as the joys and passions of his country.
In 1960, Mr. Masekela moved briefly to London, where he studied at the Guildhall School of Music, before the singers Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba helped him secure a scholarship to attend the Manhattan School of Music. He studied classical trumpet there for four years.
In 1962, he recorded his debut album, “Trumpet Africaine,” for the Mercury label. He followed it in 1964 with “Grrr,” also on Mercury. That album — which featured the trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, a veteran of the Jazz Epistles who had also relocated to New York — included many Masekela originals that reflected his devotion to his musical roots.
During this time, Hugh Masekela often wrote instrumental arrangements for another South African born superstar Miriam Makeba. Their partnership turned romantic, and the couple married in 1964. The marriage ended in divorce two years later, but the two later continued to collaborate.
Hugh Masekela had hits in the United States with the pop jazz tunes "Up, Up and Away" (1967) and the number-one smash hit "Grazing in the Grass" (1968), which sold four million copies.
In the 1970s, Masekela toured Sub-Sarahan Africa and began a partnership with the Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who had recently pioneered the genre known as Afrobeat.
In 1980, Hugh Masekela settled in Botswana, where he set up a mobile recording studio and recorded two albums. In 1987, he traveled to London to record the album “Tomorrow,” which included “Mandela (Bring Him Back Home).”
Mr. Masekela moved back to South Africa in 1990, the year Mandela was released from prison. He continued to record and tour around the world into his mid-70s.
In 2010, Hugh Masekela was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in gold, South Africa’s highest medal of honour. Since 2014, Soweto has been the site of an annual Hugh Masekela Heritage Festival, with the stated aim “to restore our South African heritage and to uplift the local artisans of Soweto.”
Hugh Ramapolo Masekela died in Johannesburg on the early morning of 23rd January 2018 from prostate cancer, aged 78.