‘Courageous’ jazz legend Hugh Masekela loses his battle with cancer

Hugh Masekela at the Teatro at Montecasino in Junie 2009.Picture: Showtime Management
Hugh Masekela at the Teatro at Montecasino in Junie 2009.Picture: Showtime Management

South Africans are battling to come to terms with the death of legendary jazz musician and activist, Hugh Masekela, who died at the age of 78.

His family confirmed his death in a statement this morning: “It is with profound sorrow that the family of Ramapolo Hugh Masekela announce his passing. After a protracted and courageous battle with prostate cancer, he passed peacefully in Johannesburg surrounded by his family.”

President Jacob Zuma paid tribute to one of the country’s “most recognisable, signature talent”.

“It is an immeasurable loss to the music industry and to the country at large. His contribution to the struggle for liberation will never be forgotten,” he said.

“He kept the torch of freedom alive globally fighting apartheid through his music and mobilising international support for the struggle for liberation and raising awareness of the evils of apartheid.”

The Afro-jazz maestro battled prostate cancer from 2008. In October last year he cancelled his commitments “for the immediate future as I will need all my energy to continue this fight against prostate cancer”.

READ: Hugh Masekela, the man behind the music

It had been an incredible year for the septuagenarian. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of music degree by the University of KwaZulu-Natal in April and by Wits University in July, and said that he was “honoured and honestly humbled”.

In May last year, he fell and injured his shoulder in Morocco and was booked off from all his performances until he was fully recovered.

Masekela was an ardent supporter of black excellence, and he told graduates to learn and teach “our own history” instead of the European education that still consumes us – something that has left us convinced that our heritage is “backward, savage, pagan, primitive, barbaric and uncivilised”.

Known as “the father of jazz” by South African fans, Masekela was born on April 4 1939 in eMalahleni. He was introduced to jazz music at the young age of 14 by advocator of equal rights in South Africa, Anglican priest Father Trevor Huddleston, who gave Masekela his first trumpet. The Huddleston Jazz Band was formed.

One of Masekela’s most notable performances was performing in the 1959 musical King Kong, written by Todd Matshikiza. He was just 20 at the time. 

At just 21 years old, in 1960, Masekela was to spend 30 years in exile when he arrived in New York and enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music.

The sixties saw a phenomenal growth in jazz music, and he was able to immerse himself fully in the New York jazz scene.

In 1968, the world got to know his name after his single Grazin’ in the Grass went to number one on the American pop charts.

In 1990 he returned to South Africa after the ANC was unbanned and former president Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

Masekela had released 40 albums, and worked with artists such as Marvin Gaye, Brenda Fassie and Stevie Wonder.

He was married twice – to legendary musician Miriam Makeba in the 60s, and Elinam Cofie in 1999 – and had two children.

In 2010, President Zuma honoured him with the highest order in South Africa: The Order of Ikhamanga, and 2011 saw Masekela receive a Lifetime Achievement award at the Womex World Music Expo in Copenhagen.

His book, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela, was published in 2004.

“We will, in due course, release details of memorial and burial services. Hugh Masekela was someone who always engaged robustly with the press on musical and social political issues. We laud the press for respecting his privacy through his convalescence, and during this, our time of grief. Our gratitude to all and sundry for your condolences and support,” the family said. – Additional information from the Hugh Masekela official site

Hugh Masekela at the Teatro at Montecasino in Junie 2009.Picture: Showtime Management
Hugh Masekela
Hugh Masekela with his signature instrument.
Hugh Masekela with his son, Sal.
Zakes Mda and Hugh Masekela chat about life, arts and everything else.
Hugh Masekela performing at the 2016 Ubuntu awards in Cape Town. Picture: Modise Tau
Comedian Kagiso Lediga and Musician Hugh Masekela during the recording of his new TV show, The Bantu Hour, in October 2015. Picture: Tebogo Letsie/City Press
Hugh Masekela as he is recognised around the world – with his trumpet.
Hugh Ramopolo Masekela during an interview with City Press in September 2015.Picture: Lucky Nxumalo/City Press
Hugh Masekela signs the official contract with Jacana for the publication of his book, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela. Picture: Muntu Vilakazi/City Press
Hugh Masekela at Standard Bank Joy of Jazz media launch in May 2015.Picture: Elizabeth Sejake/City Press
Musician Hugh Masekela during an interview at Melrose Hotel in September 2016. Picture: Tebogo Letsie
Hugh Masekela during an interview with City Press in July 2013. Picture: Lucky Nxumalo/City Press
Hugh Masekela performs on the James Phillips Stage at Oppikoppi, 9 August 9 2014. Picture: Kate Janse van Rensburg

Avantika Seeth
Multimedia journalist
City Press
p:+27 11 713 9001
w:www.citypress.co.za  e: avantika.seeth@citypress.co.za
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