Hugh Masekela dead at 78

Written by on January 24, 2018

Hugh Masekela, the celebrated South African musician, died yesterday in Johannesburg at age 78. According to a statement from his family, he succumbed to a “protracted and courageous battle with prostate cancer”.

The prolific trumpeter recorded over 40 albums in a 60-year career that saw most of his best work done in the United States where he lived after escaping the racially divisive apartheid system in his homeland during the early 1960s.

His signature song was Grazing In The Grass, a jazzy instrumental that became an international hit in 1967. The previous year, Masekela had divorced Miriam Makeba, the South African singer with whom he helped introduce African music to the US mainstream.

Around the period Masekela was impressing jazz and rock artistes around the world, he was part of a recording combo assembled by American impresario Danny Sims to back rhythm and blues acts. When Sims relocated to Jamaica in the late 1960s and discovered a talented singer/songwriter named Bob Marley, he took them to Jamaica to record with Marley and The Wailers, a harmony group that also included Peter Tosh, Bunny ‘Wailer’ Livingston and Marley’s wife Rita.

Masekela, drummer Bernard Purdie and guitarist Eric Gale backed The Wailers on a number of sessions at Dynamic Sounds in Kingston. Some of the songs from that project can be heard on the 1985 album, Bob, Bunny, Peter & Rita.

On his 1988 album, Uptownship, Masekela paid tribute to Marley by covering No Woman, No Cry.

A new generation of fans discovered Hugh Masekela in the 1980s as domestic and international pressure on the South African government slowly dismantled apartheid. In 1986, he and some of Africa’s top musicians played on Paul Simon’s multi-Grammy-winning album, Graceland.The following year, Masekela scored with the uptempo Bring Him Back Home (Mandela), a song calling for South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela to be freed from prison after nearly 30 years.

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