Hugh Masekela burst on the world pop scene in the 1960s, playing alongside Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, The Who and Jimi Hendrix. The legendary jazz musician died on Tuesday at age 78.
Hugh Masekela, the legendary South African jazz musician who scored an unlikely No. 1 hit on the Billboard chart with his song “Grazing in the Grass” and 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.”
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 almost despite himself — as he struggled for decades with copious drug and alcohol abuse — Masekela became a leading international voice against apartheid.
The trumpeter, composer, flugelhorn player, bandleader, singer and political activist was born in the mining town of Witbank, South Africa, on April 4, 1939. Growing up, he lived largely with his grandmother, who ran a shebeen — an illicit bar for black and colored South Africans — in her house. (Until 1961, it was illegal for nonwhites in South Africa to consume alcohol.)
Masekela heard township bands and the music of the migrant laborers who would gather to dance and sing in the shebeen on weekends. One of his uncles shared 78s of jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller. Those two forces, the music and the booze, did much to shape Masekela’s life. He began drinking at age 13.
He 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.