It is with a heavy heart that we begin to mourn the passing of the Father of South African Jazz, Hugh Ramopolo Masekela. Bra Hugh, as he was most affectionately known, passed away early on the morning of the 23rd of January 2018. High Masekela lost his battle with prostate cancer, an illness that he had been seeking treatment for since 2008 – he was 78
Words: Tshiamo Seape
Masekela was born on 4 April 1939 in Witbank. As a child, he began playing the piano, but his musical allegiances changed after seeing the film Young Man with a Horn (in which Kirk Douglas plays a character inspired by American jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke), Masekela took up playing the trumpet. Hugh was given tuition and the trumpet by anti Apartheid activist Father Trevor Huddleston who also encouraged him to train under the leader of the Municipal Brass Band Uncle Sauda.
Together with another South African legend, Abdullah Ibrahim, he would go on to form the Jazz Epistles, the first African Jazz group to record an LP. His working relationship with Ibrahim would be the first in a lifelong series of meetings demonstrating Hugh’s ability to surround himself with the most influential and talented individuals in music. After going into exile following the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, Hugh made the most of his time abroad studying at the London Guildhall School of Music, later moving to the Manhattan School of Music in New York.
Hugh Masekela toured with Paul Simon in support of his album Graceland. While on tour he collaborated with fellow South Africans Ladysmith Black Mambazo and his future wife, Miriam Makeba. In Masekela, there was a man whose talents were not confined to the studio or concert stage. Hugh was also an integral part of the music development of the Broadway play, Sarafina!
Through CSA’s many partnerships with Miriam Makeba we, by extension, had many fond encounters with Hugh Masekela. CSA Co-founder Marc Le Chat reflects on his first encounter with Bra Hugh – “When I first met Hugh Masekela it was at a party held at Miriam Makeba’s house in Northriding. He, like the other exiles, had recently returned home and Hugh told me the long journey into both night and day had been worth it. Hugh was not only a musician in whose impeccable groove (songs like “Grazing in the Grass” and “Stimela”) South African music received global acclaim but also a humanitarian, self-admitted party animal – who tamed his ways after his return – and humanist who lived life to the full. Hugh leaves giant footprints on our cultural landscape for which we will always be grateful. RIP Bra Hugh”.
Hugh Masekela is survived by his two children. Rest in Power, Hugh Masekela.