Ever since the day in 1954 when Archbishop Trevor Huddleston gave him his trumpet, Masekela has played music that closely reflects his beginnings as a little boy in Witbank - the street songs, church songs, migrant labor work songs, political protest songs and the sounds of the wide cross-section of ethnic culture South Africa possesses from Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, Khoi-sa, Griqua, Sotho and Tswana peoples of the South, South East, Central and Western Regions to the Ndebele, Tsonga, Venda and Pedi provinces of the North and North West. The urban sounds of the townships, the influences of the Manhattan Brothers, Dorothy Masuka, the Dark City Sisters, the Mahotella Queens and Mahlathini, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba, Spokes Mashiyane, Lemmy Mabaso, Elijah Nkwanyana, Kippie Moeketsi, Mackay Davashe, all these form an intrinsic part of his musical roots, intertwined with vivid portraits of the struggles and the sorrows, the joys and passions of his country.
After Huddleston asked Uncle Saude, the leader of the Johannesburg “Native” Municipal Brass Band, to teach him the rudiments of trumpet playing, Hugh quickly proceeded to master the instrument after having been inspired by the film, Young Man with a Horn, in which Kirk Douglas portrait the great American Jazz trumpeter, Bix Beiderbeck. Soon, some of his music-loving schoolmates also became interested in playing instruments, leading to the formation of the Huddleston Jazz Band, South Africa’s very first youth orchestra formed at St. Peters Secondary School where the anti-apartheid priest was chaplain.
Huddleston was deported by the racist government of the time for his emancipation militancy and when Hugh kept on badgering him to help him leave the oppressive country for music education opportunities abroad, the priest worked very hard to get him to England. After playing in other dance bands led by the great Zakes Nkosi, Ntemi Piliso, Elijah Nkwanyana and Kippie Moeketsi, he joined the star studded African Jazz Revenue in 1956. Following a Manhattan Brothers tour of the country in 1958, he ended up playing in the orchestra for the “King-Kong” musical written by Todd Matshikiza, with Jonas Gwangwa and some of the aforementioned musicians. “King-Kong” was South Africa’s first record-breaking blockbuster theatrical success that toured the country for a sold-out year with Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brother’s Nathan Mdledle in the lead. The musical later went to London’s West End for two years. At the end of 1959, Abdullah Ibrahim, Kippie, Jonas, Makhaya Ntshoko, Johnny Gertz and Hugh formed Jazz Epistle Verse 1, the first African group to record an LP and perform to record-breaking audiences in Johannesburg and Cape Town through late 1959 to early 1960.
As the brutality of the Apartheid state increased, Hugh finally left the country with the help of Trevor Huddleston and his friends Yehudi Menuhin and Johnny Dankworth, who got him admitted into London’s Guildhall School of Music. Miriam Makeba who was already enjoying major success in the USA later helped him with Harry Belafonte, Dizzy Gillepsie and John Mehegan to get admission to the Manhattan School of Music in New York. Hugh finally met Louis Armstrong who had sent the Huddleston Band a trumpet after Huddleston told the trumpet king about the bank he helped start back in South Africa before deportation. With immense help from Makeba and Belafonte, Hugh eventually began to record, gaining his first breakthrough with The Americanization of Ooga-Booga produced by the late Tom Wilson who had been producer of Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel’s debut successes. Stewart Levine, his business partner in Chissa Records, went on to produce hit records for Hugh on Uni Records, beginning with Alive and Well at the Whiskey in 1967 and then Promise of A Future, which contained the gigantic hit song “Grazing in the Grass” in 1968.
By the beginning of the 1970s he had attained international fame, selling out all of America’s festivals, auditoriums and top nightclubs. Heeding the call of his African roots, he moved to Guinea, then Liberia and Ghana after recording the historical “Home is Where Music Is” with Dudu Pokwana.
After a pilgrimage to Zaire in 1973, Masekela met “Hedzoleh Soundz” a grassroots Ghanaian bank Fela introduced them to. For the next five years they produced a string of ground breaking records, which included international favorites such as “The Marketplace”, “Ashiko”. “The Boy’z doin it”, “Vasco Da Gama”, “African Secret Society” and the evergreen “Stimela”. After a tour and two duet albums with Herb Albert, Hugh and Miriam played a Christmas Day concert in Lesotho in 1980 where 75,000 people came to see them after they had been away for 20 years from the region.
In 1981, Hugh moved to Botswana where he started the Botswana International School of Music with Dr. Khabi Mngona. His record label Jive Records, helped him to set up a mobile studio in Gaborone where Stewart produced Techno Bush from which came the hit single “Don’t Go Lose it Baby”. In 1985, he unexpectedly had to leave with his band, Kalahari, for England after the South African Defense Force massacred his friend George Phahle and his wife Lindi, along with fourteen other people in the pretext of raiding “communist terrorist camps” manned by South African Anti-Apartheid activists.
While in England, Hugh conceived the Broadway musical “Sarafina” with Mbongeni Ngema and recorded another runaway song “Bring Back Nelson Mandela, Bring Him Back Home to Soweto” with Kalahari in 1986. After touring in “Graceland” with Paul Simon, Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba, Masekela returned home following the un-banning of political parties and the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990. In 1991, he launched his first tour of South Africa called “Sekunjalo This is It” with Sankomota and Bayete; it was a four-month tour, selling out in the country’s major cities
Starting in the mid-‘90s, Masekela began releasing a stream of albums and collections that showed his versatility and growth in South African jazz. His recent albums Black to the Future and Sixty have both gone platinum.