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An Icon Falls

An Icon Falls
January 29
12:06 2018

A Reflection on Hugh Masekela’s Influence and Legacy


In the end, Botswana became his second home when the US could not give him the inspiration that only a reconnection with the contiguity of a country adjacent to his native South Africa could


If anyone has iconised the trumpet as both a musical instrument and a vessel through which activism can come alive, it is undoubtedly Ramapolo Hugh Masekela. The legendary musician, known across all continents for reciting African experiences through music, Masekela passed in the morning of January 23 after a long battle with prostate cancer. He was aged 78.


The countless tributes that followed echoed the impact Masekela had on people from various backgrounds, evoking memories of growing up in the city with hues of village life, Sophiatown dance styles, the apartheid regime, shebeen smells, and the timeless jazz that made music the cornerstone of surviving township life as well as the ‘voice of the people’. These various experiences usually permeate through his records. He championed African people as the source of his inspiration:

“The people of Africa are basically having a rough time, most of them, and I come from them, and the material I write comes from them. I would be a little sick if I didn’t write about their problems because they are my source.”

Born in 1939 in the South African town of Witbank, Masekela was raised by his grandmother. He took up singing and playing piano at nine and the horn at 14. Before long he became an integral part of the 1950s jazz scene in Johannesburg as a member of the Jazz Epistles.

African culture has always been central to Masekela’s work and lyricism, his gift of storytelling and his narrative of lived stories of black South Africans during the oppressive apartheid regime. Acclaimed as ‘the father of South African Jazz’, songs such as “Stimela” became a visual interpretation of the coal train, while others such as “Soweto Blues” which features his first wife. the late Miriam Makeba, paid homage to the struggle they actively fought against, leading to their exile for about 30 years.

His is a legacy felt beyond his trumpet and unique, theatric singing voice. As a musician and an activist, two things he found to be two sides of the same coin, Masekela was never quite obsessed with his legacy as much as he was about the progression of Africans. He was also passionate about the youth, reinventing his rooted sounds with artists such as Thandiswa Mazwai and DJ Black Coffee.

While in the US in the ’60s, Masekela produced “Grazing in the Grass,” his 1968 hit produced by Quincy Jones’ grandson Sunny, and it saw him become an international top-charting musician.

Masekela in Botswana

His longing for Africa became more apparent after the death of his mother in 1978. He travelled all over the African continent, and moved to Botswana to be close to his ancestral soil after struggling to reconnect to his musical roots in the States.  Masekela was known to band up with local musicians at his residence at Extension 4 in Gaborone, and hot jazz spots such as No Mathata bar and Mogotel in Mogoditshane where his relationship with prolific local band, ‘Kalahari.’ was born.

The band comprised John Selolwane, Banjo Mosele, Lekofi Sejeso, White Kgopo, Rampholo Molefhe, Aubrey, Tsienyane on drums and the late Gino on saxophone. Masekela and Kalahari produced hits such as “Gaborone” and “Don’t Go Lose it Baby” and albums such as “Techno Bush,” “Waiting for the Rain” and “Tomorrow” through Jive Afrika.

John Selolwane

Guitarist, composer and the founding father of Botswana ‘contemporary jazz’ in his own right, John Selolwane remembers Hugh: “I knew Hugh Masekela while he was still in America, and at the time I was in East Africa. He wanted so much to be close to his home and wanted inspiration that he didn’t get in the States. I worked with Hugh for 36 years, and the first album we worked on included ‘Working for a Dollar Bill.’ Techno Bush became a sensation in the US, and it included songs such as ‘Motlalepula’ and ‘Bring Him Back Home’. We travelled the world through this music. Jive Afrika brought a mobile studio to Woodpecker where we mostly recorded in Botswana. When it came to music, we did our all to produce what you now call ‘world music.’ Hugh was a wonderful man and may he rest peacefully.”

Banjo Mosele

Singer and guitarist Banjo Mosele of ‘Ntsa e jele Ntsanyana’ fame was also part of Kalahari and recalls himself as the youngest member of the group. “I met Hugh in 1980. He was on a trip to Lesotho, but because he was on exile, he had to fly there from Botswana. He saw us perform at Mogotel and was keen to join us. We travelled to countries such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique and overseas.

“We met a lot of people during our tours and show. Hugh made sure of that. He helped me go to Goldsmith College for two years. He taught me the music business. He taught me everything I know now as a musician. I later settled in Norway where I embarked on a successful solo career. We worked with a very great man, and we are the few fortunate Batswana to work with him. He was like a father to me. I wish him a peaceful rest.”

Masekela left Botswana in 1985 after a raid on Gaborone by the South African Defence Force (SADF) that killed his friend George Phahle. His contribution to Botswana’s jazz scene and seasoned veteran musicians such as Selolwane, Mosele and Socca Moruakgomo undeniably affirm this.

This is how his son, Selema ‘Sal’ Masekela eulogised him: “Of the countless shows I had the honour of watching my dad perform, each felt like the first, each felt brand new. At the age of five he first introduced me to the late night halls of Manhattan’s The Village Gate and Mikell’s where he would steal the hearts and souls of innocents with a musical storytelling all his own, passionately and relentlessly transporting them to the farthest reaches of Africa with both voice and trumpet.”

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