Remembering Hugh Masekela: A life of music, a life filled with joy!

01 February 2018 - 13:48 By BONGANI MADONDO
Hugh Masekela enthralled audiences around the world with his music.
Hugh Masekela enthralled audiences around the world with his music.
Image: Gallo Images/ Lulama Zenzile

It's been a year since Hugh Masekela passed away. In this article from our archives, Bongani Madondo pays tribute to the late musical legend.

We South Africans are the original blues people. No one loves death like we do. No one performs death rites like we do. Nobody mourns like we do. Nobody tells cinematic anecdotes about the dead like we do.

But how do I write about a man who lived so loud, loved so loud; a man whose biography maps out death-defying feats; a man who for almost 80 years lived like he needed two additional lives dancing in parallel? A man who, if you listened to his mournful, often admonishing, often celebratory and often conversational horn, elegant when muted, freewheeling when unmuted, was always in dialogue with the heart. Yes, that man.

How to write about his art when his music bared all its inner secrets, cajoling listeners the world over to reveal their own hidden dreams, joys, anxieties? How do you ink such a wet and tear-soaked dirge of a screed when the man's disposition erred always on the side of a sunny spirit?

Still Grazing, his autobiography, reads like the most affecting fiction for its vividness and impossible memory, so much so that you ask: how did a man who snorted so much blow, so much crack, digested so many Quaaludes and barbiturates, who inhaled so many hectares of weed, swallowed rivers of cognac and walked on the wildest side, how did he recall so much and with such photographic precision? How did he even live long enough to write about it all?

I have seen first-hand how the late Brenda Fassie, Wings Segale and plenty more thumbed their noses at death as though saying: "We are not afraid of you."

Hugh Masekela not only outlived them all, he outpunched, out-rocked and out-jazzed them. Through his horn he emitted elegance with an artist's commitment to fine lines, texture and poetic economy. Listen closely to Bo Masekela from 1965's The Lasting Impression of Hugh Masekela, possibly one of the most melancholic songs ever recorded.

Listen to Nomali from 1970's Home Is Where the Music Is, or the trumpet interventions that hold his beloved Stimela aloft, and you will be ushered into the unimpeachable genius of Masekela.

While writing this essay I put the needle on the album Sixty and was yanked by surprise at the depth and artistic thoughtfulness in the Don Laka-composed Koshana, a stripped-down horn and piano duet up there with the best of piano and horn collaborations. A deep, contemplative, low-key conversation between two souls. A thing of utter beauty.

Because he loved pop, loved life and was unafraid of trivial daily experiences, Masekela has suffered the misreading by uppity negroes as being a man not steeped in jazz's classicism, as a creature merely of Eros. He didn't give a toss.

WATCH a music video for Hugh Masekela's hit single Stimela.

Hughskie gloried in life, howled at life. Ah, but beautifully. Hughie, "man boy of the ages, mirror of my stupidity", as his friend the poet Keorapetse Kgositsile described him, was a lyrical poet to his marrow.

At his most dissonant he wrecked the ball in the outlandish punk-psychedelic gestures of his friend Jimi Hendrix. At his most contemplative he threw his strokes as though bequeathed with a painter's mad genius. Indeed, his life and art could be compared to the work of Matisse, George Pemba, Gerard Sekoto, with the bawdy and colourful attitude of a Pollock. There was always elegance to his madness.


In case there's a soul out there who has not read Masekela's memoirs or heard him dust off a morsel of anecdote, here the artist tells a story from his youth in his own cadence.

"On April 4 1939, against a backdrop of white domination and black rebellion, Pauline Bowers Masekela, who everyone called 'Polina', gave birth to me inside my grandmother's house at 76 Tolman Street on a dusty, tree-lined avenue in Kwa-Guqa township, Witbank, about one hundred miles east of Johannesburg. The Star, the widely circulated, white-owned daily, did not publish my arrival, or for that matter any news about black people. There were only a few African-language newspapers, not that African editors would have trumpeted the arrival of Ramapolo Hugh Masekela."

It didn't take the editors too many decades to put him in their newspapers. On April 12 1956, The Star splashed a photo of a 17-year-old Masekela in delirious joy upon receiving a gift, a used trumpet that was once the property of his "negro" American jazz hero Louis Armstrong, also known as Satchmo. The photo was shot by Alf Kumalo on the streets of Sophiatown. Their friendship was sealed in a vial of psychic recognition of the talent in each other.

The Star announced: "Louis Armstrong's Trumpet Arrives and Jazz Sessions Start. Hugh Cannot Believe His Luck: A Trumpet from the 'King' Himself."

The truth was much less dramatic. Luck had nothing to do with it. One of Masekela's mentors and tutors was Father Trevor Huddleston, chaplain of St Peter's seminary, champion of township youth and the downtrodden, and a thorn in the side of the authorities.

Hugh Masekela's music spanned space and time, with a magic stretching from Joburg to New York. He enthralled the Big Apple with a performance in 1966.
Hugh Masekela's music spanned space and time, with a magic stretching from Joburg to New York. He enthralled the Big Apple with a performance in 1966.
Image: Getty Images and America

Huddleston knew that young Hugh had been smitten with the trumpet since seeing the musical film Young Man with a Horn when he was 14. Three years later, Huddleston engineered the journey through which Satchmo's trumpet ended up in the hands of young Masekela.

On a visit to the US, Huddleston managed to see Louis Armstrong backstage after a show and explained that he had a group of boys in South Africa trying to learn music. Not long after returning home, Huddleston received a package containing the trumpet. Masekela and his cohort gathered at the Polly Street community centre that night to marvel at the gift.

A few years later, Masekela had apprenticed with the best African jazz revues, such as the African Jazz & Variety show, had taken on King Kong, and was playing in Cape Town with his cousin Jonas Gwangwa, Morolong "Kippie" Moeketsi, Makhaya Ntshoko, Early Mabuza, Johnny Gertze and Dollar Brand (later Abdullah Ibrahim).

This band, the Jazz Epistles, took the country by storm. Their repertoire was a combo of jazz, mbaqanga, Cape Malay roots and snatches of blues and "cool" jazz. In January 1960, they hopped onto the choo-choo-makhala and headed from Cape Town to Mjipa, Johannesburg, where after a few club dates Gallo Records ushered them into the studio.

Their first and - according to several sources, including Masekela himself - only album, The Jazz Epistles Verse 1, was pressed. They burned bright and emitted psychedelic colours through their unique South African stew-pot of sound. Soon they were booked to play the Selbourne Hall, a satellite of Johannesburg City Hall. Masekela left for the US via a stint in London in the winter of 1960 with the country still smouldering with rage and sunk in spirit after the March 21 Sharpeville massacre. The rest is history.


A jazz digger with literary ambitions, I met Masekela in the early 1990s, outside his jazz joint the Cotton Pub in Hillbrow. It was not long after his return from exile and his now epochal Sekunjalo national tour. South Africa was in that giddy but edgy space that talking heads on the telly referred to as "the pre-transitory phase".

We met again in 1995 when Masekela was artistic director of the State Theatre. He had dreams of turning the monstrously huge and glorious theatre complex of the apartheid era into a pan-African sprawl with markets, buskers, accessible theatre and African festivals. Alas, it was not to be. Masekela was not much of an administrator. What artist is? He later told me: "I tried, man, I tried; that place was dead prior to my arrival."

About six years ago he moved into my neighbourhood of Killarney, Johannesburg, and we became inseparable. He called me "Die Dondiez" and I reciprocated with a name I pilfered from his late friend, Marvin Gaye: "Hughskie". He'd debate on just about everything, lob corrosive and ego-stripping jokes at me, tell me: "You need to teach your young 'uns African languages, man. You middle-class blacks with your misdirected aspiration towards whiteness are a bloody joke."

Our bond was sealed by our love for rock 'n' roll and the recognition that rock as an art form and performance ritual was an indie-genius art form, that the best of jazz, like rock, funk and classical musical expressions, was a magical séance ritual rooted in the African cosmological science.

We both loved the African continent, its music, art, visuality and climes. We drove across the country, on highways and through poetic winelands, listening to music. Often those road experiences ended up being Masekela's neo-cultural renaissance seminars, leavened with a rude sense of humour.

In his company, wisdom was always at the ready. He was a man in desperate need to impart something beyond music, as though his music was not enough. An ever-searching artist, he had an acute ear for futuristic sounds and compassion for the young and restless sounds from the streets.

It was Hughskie who, after introducing me to maskandi band Amaswazi Emvelo's smash hit Nomasonto, went on to play for me the current Nigerian dance-hall-inflected pop: part rap, part pidgin, part club bangers and West African pop mavens. He would laugh before switching genres, throwing a barbed line my way: "Yazi, Die Dondiez uyi moegoe, yazi? [You know, Die Dondiez is a fool, you know?]"

I'd lob the ball back: "But that's why I hang out with you: Die Kleva van Klevas, notch?"

We would collapse with laughter as he revved his sleek black Volvo deep into the blue-black night: two imperfect souls.