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African Legends

Hugh Masekela

By Chris Nickson
Published November 9, 2006

This South African trumpeter scored a massive worldwide hit with "Grazin' In The Grass," becoming one of the biggest names in African music in the process.

South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela has at times been cursed in his life. But he’s emerged on the other side, coming back strong since the end of apartheid, settled back at home, having conquered demons personal and political. He is still making music on the cornet and flugelhorn and singing, most recently with Revival (Heads Up).

It’s a long way from the poor township of Rossetenville, where Masekela started out by taking piano lessons. He switched to trumpet and made music his career, playing with the Manhattan Brothers and forming the Jazz Epistles, the first South African group to record an album.

As the apartheid situation in South Africa worsened, Masekela left for London, then New York, where friends (principally countrywoman Miriam Makeba, to whom he was briefly married) helped him land a place at the Manhattan School of Music. Masekela played on the Byrds’ classic rock hit “So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star” and performed at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of ’67.

Already unclassifiable because of the breadth of his music, the next year “Grazin’ In The Grass” made him a huge pop star with its laid-back, easy vibe, hitting the charts in several countries—it reached number one on the Billboard pop and R&B charts in America. The track itself was just filler, recorded in half an hour, but it brought him international fame; suddenly, he was a headlining name. Then, in 1972, he turned his back on all that, and headed back to Africa.

After moving through several countries, he hooked up with Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, who introduced him to the Ghanaian band Hedzoleh Sound, with whom Masekela recorded a string of hits. Masekela moved to Botswana in 1981 and founded the Botswana International School of Music, still recording, of course. He remained for four years.
Masekela then returned to England, co-penning the successful musical Sarafina before joining Paul Simon’s Graceland tour. Finally, with the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990, Masekela was able to return to South Africa, recording and touring there once more.