Jazz Legend And Activist, Hugh Masekela Dies At 78

(Photo credit: Naija Times)

Trumpeter, composer, flugelhorn player, bandleader, singer and political activist Hugh Masekela, the legendary South African jazz musician who collaborated with artists ranging from Harry Belafonte to Paul Simon, has died at 78 after a protracted battle with prostate cancer, his family announced Tuesday.

“[Our] hearts beat with profound loss,” the Masekela family said in a statement. “Hugh’s global and activist contribution to and participation in the areas of music, theatre, and the arts in general is contained in the minds and memory of millions across 6 continents.”

His song “Grazing in the Grass” shot up to number one on the Billboard charts and he had a generations of fans from young and old all over the world.

Over his career, Masekela collaborated with an astonishing array of musicians, including Harry Belafonte, Herb Alpert, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Paul Simon — and his ex-wife, Miriam Makeba. For almost 30 years, “Bra Hugh,” as he was fondly known, was exiled from his native country. And despite decades of drug and alcohol abuse, Masekela became a leading international voice against apartheid.

“I had destroyed my life with drugs and alcohol and could not get a gig or a band together,” Hugh said in a 1981 interview. “No recording company was interested in me.”

That depression inspired the song that achieved genuinely iconic status back home in South Africa: the 1974 hit record, Stimela/Coal Train.

“For me songs come like a tidal wave. At this low point, for some reason, the tidal wave that whooshed in on me came all the way from the other side of the Atlantic: from Africa; from home.”

Hugh was given his first trumpet at age 14 by an anti-apartheid crusader, the Rev. Trevor Huddleston, who was also the superintendent of a boarding school that Masekela attended.

“I was always in trouble with the authorities in school,” Masekela told NPR in 2004.

He had been inspired by the Kirk Douglas film Young Man with a Horn. Huddleston, hoping to steer him away from delinquency, asked what it was that would make Masekela happy. “I said, ‘Father, if you can get me a trumpet I won’t bother anybody anymore.'”

(Photo credit: Youtube screenshot)

Masekela soon became part of the Huddleston Jazz Band. And the priest managed to get one of the world’s most famous musicians to send young Hugh a new instrument, as Masekela told NPR in 2004.

“Three years later,” Masekela recalled, “[Huddleston] was deported and came through the United States on his way to England and met Louis Armstrong and told him about the band. And Louis Armstrong sent us a trumpet.”

By the mid-1950s, he had joined Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz Revue in Johannesburg; within just a few years,…