Hugh Masekela - Biography

Hugh Masekela is a South African composer, coronetist, flugelhornist, trumpeter and singer. Masekela describes his mix of South African music, swing and rock as “township bop.”


Hugh Rampolo Masekela was born April 04th, 1939 in Witbank, Johannesburg, South Africa. He began singing and playing piano as a child. At age 14, after seeing Kirk Douglas essentially play Bix Beiderbecke in Young Man with a Horn, he wanted to play the trumpet and was given one by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston. Huddleston asked The Johannesburg "Native" Municipal Brass Band's Uncle Sauda, to teach the youth the fundamentals. After quickly learning them, Masekela and other youths formed The Huddleston Jazz Band, South Africa's first youth orchestra.


In 1956, Masekela joined Alfred Herbert's African Jazz Revue. In 1958, with The Manhattan Brothers with future wife Miriam Makeba, he toured South Africa. As part of the cast of the musical King Kong, he travelled to the UK in 1959. The same year he formed The Jazz Epistles with Dollar Brand (later known as Abdullah Ibrahim), Kippie Moekesti, Makhaya Ntshoko and Johnny Gertze. They subsequently became the first African jazz combo to record an LP and performed in front of massive grows in J-Berg and Cape Town until March 21, 1960, when 69 peaceful protestors were massacred by the South African government, after which they banned gatherings of ten or more people. Masekela left the country for the UK, where Yehudi Menuhin and John Dankworth helped secure his admittance to London's Guildhall School of Music. Shortly after, he visited the US, where he met and befriended Harry Belafonte. For the next four years, Masekela studied classical trumpet at the Manhattan School of Music in New York.


After signing with Mercury, Masekela released Trumpet Africane (1962 Mercury) whilst he was still in school. After graduating in 1964, he returned with Grrr (1966 Mercury) before moving to MGM. However, MGM's president was convinced that Americanization of Ooga Booga (1966 MGM) was too African for American tastes. After its release, Masekela moved to Chisa/Blue Thumb for the deep soul The Emancipation of Hugh Masekela (1966 Chisa) featuring Charlie Smalls on piano and two drummers (Big Black) on percussion.


The summer of love saw Masekela embraced by The Byrds, who featured him on their songs "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" and "Lady Friend." Both acts played together at the Monterey Pop Festival, captured in cinema direct filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker's Monterey Pop. After the release of Hugh Masekela's Latest (1967 UNI Records), his single "Grazin' in the Grass" was a massive hit, selling four million copies. He followed-up with Hugh Masekela Is Alive and Well at The Whiskey (1968 UNI), Masekela (1968 UNI), The Promise of a Future (1968 UNI) and The Lasting Impression of Hugh Masekela (1968 MGM).


In the 1970s, Masekela moved back to Chisa/Blue Thumb. He debuted there with Reconstruction (1970 Chisa). It was followed by the well-received Hugh Masekela & Union of South Africa (1971 Chisa). The double album, Home Is Where the Music Is (1972 Blue Thumb) saw Masekela joined by fellow South African exiles saxophonist Dudu Pakwana and drummer Makaya Ntshoko. It was followed by I Am Not Afraid (1973 Blue Thumb). Masekela Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz (1973 Blue Thumb) introduced the Ghanian band Hedzoleh Soundz and reflected Masekela's increasing emrabce of highlife music.


Masekala next surfaced at Casablanca. The Boy's Doin' It (1975 Casablanca) took his signature mix and added a bit of salsa and disco too. He also again employed the services of Hedzoleh Soundz and dedicated the release (recorded in Lagos) to Fela Kuti. Colonial Man (1976 Casablanca), Melody Maker (1977 Casablanca) and You Told Your Mama Not to Worry (1977 Casablanca) followed. Masekela released a live collaborative performance with Herb Alpert from the Roxy, Main Event (1978 A&M), before moving to Africa.


After Masekela returned to Africa, he first collaborated with various Central and West African musicians. After he set up the mobile Battery Mobile studio in Botswana, he reconnected with South African ones too. Technobush (1984 Jive) was recorded at the in Gaborone, Botswana. It was followed by Waiting for the Rain (1985). Tomorrow (1987 Warner Bros.) produced a hit single, “Bring Him Back Home," which was adopted by Mandela supporters. Uptownship (1988 Novus) proved to be his last album recorded in exile.


Following the end of apartheid, Masekela returned to South Africa and most of his music made after returning reflected an increased South African character. His first album after coming home was Beatin' Aroun de Bush (1992 Novus). The live Hope (1994 Triloka) found Masekela leading a seven-piece in a performance at Blues Alley in DC. It was followed by Johannasburg (1995 Ananasi Records Company), Black to the Future (1998 Shanachie) and Note of Life (1999 Sony).


If anything, the 2000s have seen Masekela embrace even more fully African traditions, as well as current trends. To mark the occasion of his 60th birthday, Masekela recorded an album primarily of African songs, Sixty (2000 Shanachie). Live at the BBC (2002 Fuel 2000) combines two live performances from 1985, one at Glasto and the other at the Nelson Mandela Concert. He also released Umoja - Spirit of Togetherness (2002 Sting Music) and Time (2002 Columbia), easily one of his most widely acclaimed releases. The following year he was feature in the documentary Amandla! - A Revolution in Four Part Harmony.On Revival (2005 Heads Up) he employed the services of young Kwaito producers and musicians. Live at the Market Theatre (2007 Four Quarters Entertainment) captured a two-and-a-half-hour concert. His most recent studio album is Phola (2008 World Conn).


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