Hugh Masekela, South African Jazz Legend, Dies

South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela performs on stage in 2010 during the FIFA World Cup Kick-off Celebration Concert in Johannesburg.

Hugh Masekela’s self-imposed exile from his home country of South Africa was long and painful. But during his three decades away, Mr. Masekela also created a new sound, Afro-jazz, that proved a stealthy weapon in the fight against apartheid back home.

​​The world-renowned trumpeter, singer and composer died ​in Johannesburg Tuesday ​after ​​a ​decade-​long battle with prostate cancer. He was 78.

“A baobab tree has fallen, the nation has lost a one of a kind musician with the passing of Jazz legend bra Hugh Masekela,” said ​South Africa’s Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa in a message from his official Twitter account. “We can safely say bra Hugh was one of the great architects of Afro-Jazz and he uplifted the soul of our nation through his timeless music.”

Mr. Masekela fused South African township rhythms with American blues and pop. His songs, many written in the U.S. during his 30-year exile, raised awareness about the South African government’s policy of racial segregation, known as apartheid.

At rallies, he often sang the lyrics one of his signature hits, called “Bring Him Back Home.”

“Bring back Nelson Mandela /Bring him back home to Soweto/I want to see him walking down the streets of South Africa tomorrow.”

Mr. Masekela fled South Africa in 1960 when he was 21 and landed in New York City at the heart of the golden jazz era. Musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Harry Belafonte took the budding trumpet player under their wings and encouraged him to develop his own voice, feeding off his African influences. He trained at Manhattan’s School of Music during the day and hung out at jazz clubs at night.

Eight years after arriving in New York, Mr. Masekela released his masterpiece. The soulful “Grazing in the Grass” reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts and sold millions of copies world-wide. He performed this and other songs at the World Cup’s opening ceremony in Soweto, South Africa in 2010.

His homecoming, 30 years later, marked the validation of a musician who sought to lift up his African heritage in defiance of an apartheid government that often denigrated it.

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When on stage, Mr. Masekela liked to crack jokes and dance. During his illustrious career, Mr. Masekela performed in jazz festivals and concerts all over the world and joined forces with musicians including Stevie Wonder, Bono and Nigeria’s Fela Kuti.

In October, Mr. Masekela canceled ​upcoming concerts and other commitments, citing his fight against prostate cancer, a disease he said had first been diagnosed in 2008. He said a surgery in March 2016 discovered that the cancer had spread and urged men to have regular prostate checks.

“It is a tough battle but I am greatly encouraged by the good wishes of family, friends and everyone who has supported my musical journey, which remains the greatest source of my inspiration,” he said.

​In a statement Tuesday, Mr. Masekela’s family ​said they had lost “a loving father, brother, grandfather and friend.”

“Hugh’s global and activist contribution to and participation in the areas of music, theater, and the arts in general is contained in the minds and memory of millions across 6 continents,” the statement read.

Born April 4, 1939, in a coal-mining town 80 miles east of Johannesburg, called Witbank, Mr. Masekela said he was surrounded by music everywhere—in the townships, on the streets, and at his grandmother’s shebeen, or gathering place, where migrant miners sang about home.

A creek through the town divided it by race: ​The whites lived on one side and the nonwhites were relegated to townships on the other side of the creek. Being black in South Africa at the time meant being accosted on a daily basis. At age 18, when he asked the white owner of his band for fairer pay, the owner refused, saying Mr. Masekela shouldn’t be earning more than his father, a health inspector.

Mr. Masekela quit the band on the spot. “I was fuming, but also felt a bit of a thrill,” he wrote in his 2004 autobiography “Still Grazing” about the first time he stood up to a white man.

In 1960, the 20-year-old Mr. Masekela was preparing for a tour with his band, the Jazz Epistles, when he got word that police had opened fire on thousands of blacks protesting apartheid in the South African township of Sharpeville, south of Johannesburg. After police gunned down 69 people, the South African government declared a state of emergency and banned gatherings of more than 10 blacks.

Mr. Masekela fled the country that year.

Even as Mr. Masekela’s international career blossomed in New York City, he remained deeply connected to his roots in South Africa. When he was homesick, he would often go to Central Park and talk to himself in various South African languages, he wrote in his autobiography. He and Miriam Makeba, a fellow singer to whom he was married for a short time, spent years campaigning against the racist South African regime through live music performances, such as at a 1988 concert in London that celebrated the 70th birthday of antiapartheid icon Nelson Mandela, who was in prison at the time.

A few years before, Mr. Mandela smuggled a birthday card out of prison to Mr. Masekela. The musician was so moved by the gesture that he rushed to the piano and sang lyrics in a loud outburst that came to him on the spot.

Later, the song, “Bring Him Back Home,” became central to the movement to free Mr. Mandela. When Mr. Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Mr. Masekela and his then-wife Jabu watched on television from their Harlem brownstone with tears of joy streaming down their cheeks. The song was playing in the background, Mr. Masekela wrote on his website after Mr. Mandela died in 2013.

In 1996, when Mr. Mandela signed into law a new South African constitution, Mr. Masekela performed at a soccer stadium in the township of Sharpeville, the same town as the massacre that spurred him into exile 36 years before. He was joined on stage by Mr. Mandela, who by then was president of South Africa.

—Gabriele Steinhauser contributed to this article.

Write to Jenny Gross at jenny.gross@wsj.com

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