Some artists get a helping hand exactly when it’s needed. Hugh Masekela, a black South African, was given a trumpet at age 14 by Rev. Trevor Huddleston, who taught at his school in the town of Rosettenville, outside Johannesburg. Young Masekela started the Huddleston Jazz Band, and its namesake provided as many second-hand instruments as he could find.
But the good reverend’s role in Masekela’s musical development was not quite finished. When the staunchly anti-apartheid Huddleston was exiled from South Africa in 1955, he met Louis Armstrong in New York and told him about his excessively talented charges back home. Armstrong sent one of his own trumpets to Masekela! That’s what I call an auspicious start to a jazz career.
It’s no exaggeration to say Masekela helped invent Afro-Jazz. He had a long, illustrious career, making dozens of records and playing all over the world. For 30 years he was exiled from his homeland, but during that time he shared the stage with the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane on the jazz side and David Crosby and Janis Joplin in the pop sphere. He even had a No. 1 U.S. pop hit with “Grazing in the Grass” in 1968. But it’s in jazz that his contributions are most lasting and profound.
He repaid his success like a man who understood both his good fortune and his place in history, starting cultural programs for kids in the Bronx, NY and a heritage foundation in South Africa. Masekela died in 2018 at the age of 78.
Enjoy these eight great tracks by Hugh Masekela.
- Track: “U, Dwi”
Just before leaving South Africa, Masekela formed the Jazz Epistles, which became the first black South African band to record an LP. Political unrest broke the group apart, but Masekela landed on his feet, musically speaking. He attended Guildhall Music School in London and Manhattan School of Music, befriended Harry Belafonte, and married Miriam Makeba. He also landed a recording contract with Mercury.
Grrr was Masekela’s second solo studio album. The track “U, Dwi” is subtitled “Song for My Mother” and was composed by Masekela. It’s a good example of the combination of soul and jazz sounds he often used in his work.
- Track: “Why Are You Blowing My Mind?”
Album: The Emancipation of Hugh Masekela
In 1965 Masekela and producer Stewart Levine started their own record label, Chisa. One of their first albums was this one; Masekela is joined by John Cartwright on bass, Chuck Carter on drums, Charlie Small on piano, and Big Black on congas.
With its slow syncopation, “Why Are You Blowing My Mind” is mostly a vocal Afro-Jazz track that Masekela sings in his disarmingly straightforward way. At 2:08 we finally get a trumpet solo that blasts through with a similar clarity. The structure of almost completing the song before coming in on trumpet became standard for Masekela’s vocal numbers.
- Track: “Morolo”
Album: The Lasting Impression of Hugh Masekela
While this album is long out of print, you can find all but the last track on a Verve compilation called The Lasting Impression of Ooga Booga, which combines this and an earlier record.
The levels of rhythm in “Morolo” (dedicated to a fellow musician in Johannesburg) are riveting. There’s the train-like chugging of Harry Jenkins’ drums, the repeating chordal pattern of Larry Willis’ piano, and the conversational trumpet phrases that blow out into fast-paced be-bop at 2:30.
- Track: “The Big Apple”
Album: Home Is Where the Music Is
Label: Chisa/Blue Thumb
Another Chisa release, Home Is Where the Music Is features a number of cuts by fellow South African composer and political transplant Caiphus Semenya.
One of Semenya’s distinctive pieces is “The Big Apple,” with Masekela’s trumpet and Dudu Pukwana’s alto sax dragging against each other, luxuriating in the dissonance like two taxis in Times Square. Eddie Gomez’s bass guitar provides a foundation as solid as concrete. The magic of Masekela’s first solo rests in how laid-back it is in a harmonic world that could easily lead him into a frenzy.
- Track: “Vasco da Gama (Sailor Man)”
Album: Colonial Man
Masekela assembled a large group of session musicians for Colonial Man to beef up its Latin and LA soul sounds. It’s hard to know what was in the mind of whoever came up with the cover of this album, showing Masekela dressed as a seafaring explorer, complete with spyglass. But weirder and more fascinating still is this particular track, “Vasco da Gama (Sailor Man).”
Despite the appealing Afro-Cuban beat and lyrics that seem playful at the surface, this is a serious anti-colonialism song that blames the famed ’round-the-Horn explorer for ruining Africa by drawing European attention to it. The flimsy pop-sound of the backing singers are in complete contrast with Masekela’s craggy voice once he enters and tells the woeful tale of colonialism.
- Track: “Getting Fat in Africa”
Label: Jive Afrika
Masekela became interested in boogie, funk, and electronica in the early 1980s, and he developed the Jive Afrika label to handle his output in that area. He recorded this in Botswana (he was still exiled from South Africa), and this album is reportedly his response to the tough socio-economic and racial issues he found there.
“Getting Fat in Africa” is in part a tribute to his old friend Harry Belafonte, who’d had a hit decades before with a wry song about a thieving girlfriend called “Mathilda.” Masakela’s song takes Belafonte’s as a starting point and adds political jibes to the story. The studio was obviously packed with gifted African percussionists.
- Track: “Emavungweni”
Another Jive album, Uptownship is the last album Masekela made before he was able to return to his home country. While it includes some covers of R&B songs, its strongest material is the South African tunes.
“Emavungweni” is by Ndikho Xaba, exiled leader of a band called the Natives. The opening duet by what sound like tin whistles makes exciting contrast with Masekela’s trumpet. The sax solo is by Capetown native Morris Goldberg, who also produced and engineered the album.
- Track: “Fiela”
Jabulani, one of Masekela’s last albums, glows with arrangements heavily inspired by spirituals and gospel. The album’s title is Zulu for the verb “to bring joy.”
I dare you not to sway and clap as you listen to Masekela sing the traditional “Fiela.” He treats us to some exquisite flugelhorn riffs over the last few choruses. Thank you for bringing us joy, Mr. Masekela!
[Editor’s Note: Another Masekela cut, “Stimela (The Coal Train)” from the album Hope has become a perennial audiophile demo favorite because of its stunning sound and performance.]