How Hugh Masekela made South African music global

Bra Hugh spent his entire life making South African music matter. Here are all his key highlights

This story originally appeared on MTV Base

You may know Hugh Masekela for his iconic trumpeteering and vocal work but the truth is he was infinitely more talented than just that. Bandleader, composer, singer and flugelhornist are all titles he boasted throughout his phenomenal life, leading to his ultimate title, father of South African jazz.

Bra Hugh, as he insisted on being called by both young and old, lost a battle with pancreatic cancer at age 78 yesterday morning (23 January). His story goes back all the way to a 14-year-old Hugh Masekela in 1953. After seeing the film Young Man with a Horn starring Kirk Douglas as American jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, Hugh took up playing the trumpet. His first trumpet would come from equal rights activist, Father Trevor Huddleston which would later lead to the formation of the Huddleston Jazz Band.

Those formative years were key in shaping the legend Bra Hugh would later become. Look back at some of his key defining moments which would go on to put South Africa on the world music map.
The Jazz Epistles

Bra Hugh along with Abdullah Ibrahim, Kippie Moeketsi, Jonas Gwangwa, Johnny Gertze, and Early Mabuza formed The Jazz Epistles. They were the first black South African band to record an album in South Africa.
Their talents would go on to catch the attention of composer Todd Matshikiza. The composer worked with them on King Kong, the musical based on the tragic story of South African heavyweight boxer, Ezekial “King Kong” Dhlamini. King Kong’s success later earned them their first set of performances in Europe.


Manhattan School of Music and ‘Trumpet Africaine’

In 1960, Bra Hugh would leave South Africa with no plan of returning. Now 21-years-old, he was officially in exile (which would last 30 years) and found himself in New York City where he enrolled into the Manhattan School of Music. Educators, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong would encourage him to find his own sound inspired by African influences opposed to American ones. This would eventually lead to the release of his first album in 1963, Trumpet Africaine.


Monterey Pop Festival

Hugh would soon move to Los Angeles where he got to perform at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. He shared the stage with greats such as Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, The Who and Jimi Hendrix.
Grazin’ in the Grass

Bra Hugh scooped his first No. 1 single with a song called, Grazin’ in the Grass. It topped the American pop charts, making Hugh and overnight international success. The song would go on to sell 4 million copies and be covered by multiple artists including Stevie Wonder.


Music as social activism

Bra Hugh began using his popularity and music to fight the regime he had left back home. In 1969, he released Masekela, an album featuring a song called Gold which told the plight of mine workers in South Africa. For the I Am Not Afraid album, he recorded a song called Stimela which told the troubled story of migrant workers. By 1987, he released the album Tomorrow featuring the anti-Apartheid protest single, Everybody’s Standing Up.


Botswana International School of Music

Around the mid 70s, Bra Hugh decided it was time to head home. Since things were still tense in South Africa, he spent some time living in Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, and Zaire. By 1982, he had moved to Botswana where he would stay for four years. During his time there, he founded the Botswana International School of Music along with Dr. Khabi Mngoma.
Graceland tour

Masekela was tapped to take part in Paul Simon’s Graceland tour. The tour trekked Africa and featured a number of new and upcoming African acts.



With Apartheid still top of mind for Masekela, he co-wrote and composed the musical called, Sarafina! with director, Mbongeni Ngema. The musical debuted on Broadway on 28 January 1988 and was an instant hit. It would later be developed into a film.


FIFA World Cup

In a World Cup first, a concert was held to celebrate the first-ever African FIFA World Cup. Naturally, Hugh Masekela was asked to perform at the Kick-Off Concert.


Songs of Migration

Bra Hugh would go on to write another musical, Songs of Migration, this time with director, James Ngcobo. The musical has played to sold-out theaters around the world.

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