The sun has set on an African son
I would be remiss not to talk about a legend of unparalleled pedigree and history. Famously nicknamed Bra, born Ramapholo Hugh Masekela, his flame has pettered out at age 78 after a nine-year struggle with the ogre of mankind — cancer.
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“After a protracted and courageous battle with prostate cancer, he passed on peacefully in Johannesburg, South Africa, surrounded by his family,” read the statement from his family. Masekela is survived his son Selema “Sal” Masekela from his relationship with Jessie Marie Lapierre (Haitian) and Pula Twala from his Ghanaian wife Elinam Cofie
Here is an excerpt of Masekela’s life story taken from an interview that the late Hugh had with a colleague Jonathan Mbiriyamveka and subsequently confirmed in an interview with Star FM back in 2014: “I was born in Witbank, but my grandfather came from Great Zimbabwe. Our real surname is Munyepawu, we are Karangas. We were adopted by the Batogwas . . . My great grandfather was a Lutheran evangelist, so he came with some German missionaries . . . The Munyepawu were chief agriculturalists at the time and we had to look for fertile land (which) is masikela and that is how we became Masekela.”
Surprised? Well, you should not have to be. There has been a lot of cross-pollination between the peoples of Southern Africa, especially those from Zambia, Malawi, Botswana, South Africa and Mozambique. For one, we had the same colonial master in Britain and secondly, we have these deep historical and ethnic ties that date back to eons — much like how the British have ancient ties with the Germans.
It was the priest Father Trevor Huddleston who was instrumental in securing Bra Hugh’s first musical lessons on the saxophone at age 16, as well as getting a consignment of musical instruments from his United States trip. Masekela was given a saxophone that was formerly used by Louis Armstrong. Latterly, Masekela was a key member of the Todd Matshikiza King Kong Broadway style musical that toured the world, which followed an earlier tour as part of the Manhattan Brothers in 1958. This tour was so good they featured in London’s West End for two years.
Sophiatown’s golden age
Masekela was a contemporary of Abdullah Ibrahim, Jonas Gwangwa, Kippie Moeketsi, Miriam Makeba and Dorothy Masuka in his formative years in music. Jazz music was all the rage. Teenagers like Masekela were inspired by the movies and musical sounds of jazz’s golden age when the likes Charlie “Bird” Parker, Billy Holliday and Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong reigned supreme. Jazz was all the rage. But so was apartheid, and black youth felt the stirring to fight back against the system of segregation. Jazz cats such as Bra Hugh, who had tasted the freedom that comes from this form of expression, were itching to see better days.
Masekela’s journey in music must be seen within the socio-political context in which it was moulded for on March 21, 1960, South Africans were protesting the passbook laws that restricted free movement of blacks. The protest in Sharpeville led to the death of 69 people at the hands of the police. In 1961, Masekela left the country with the assistence of Father Huddleston and other overseas friends. He was to enrol and study at the London Guildhall School of Music before transferring to the Manhattan School of Music.
Africans in America
Masekela was part of America’s equally-charged cultural and political scene of the 1960s. This is the era of the likes of Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Musically, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Elvis were demi-gods. But so were Motown and the likes of Miles Davis. The New York art scene was led by artistes such as Alan Ginsburg and Andy Warhol. It was an era of soico-political rebellion and it was the period of popular culture’s greatest and perhaps most definitive creative output. It was a crucible, in which young men and women of that age felt that they could altogether rage against the machine, as well as change the world with their ideas. Social commentators depict a time of the so-called “Flower Power” movement and “free love”.
Marriage and revolution
A musical contemporary of Masekela, Miriam Makeba, had been banned by the apartheid government for her speech at the United Nations in 1963. Her citizenship was revoked. The following is an excerpt of her famous speech which she had made at the behest of then ANC president Oliver Tambo to help put the spotlight on apartheid South Africa: “I ask you and all the leaders of the world, would you act differently, would you keep silent and do nothing if you were in our place? Would you not resist if you were allowed no rights in your own country because the colour of your skin is different from that of the rulers, and if you were punished for even asking for equality. I appeal to you, and to all the countries of the world to do everything you can to stop the coming tragedy. I appeal to you to save the lives of our leaders, to empty the prisons of all those who should never have been there.”
Against this background, Sophiatown musical colleagues Masekela and Makeba were reunited and married in 1964, though she was also quite close to Harry Belafonte. The two were to divorce in 1966, although they would later remarry and divorce again. All their lives they remained friends.
Makeba would go on to marry Stokely Carmichael of the Black Panther movement and leave for Guinea with him. Carmichael was now a target of the US government for his civil rights militancy. America itself was not really a place in which a black person could thrive. Segregation was rife and blacks were also agitating for change.
Masekela had relative musical success in the US with a tune called “Up, Up and Away” in 1967. Ground-breaking performances at famous music mecca Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 alongside soul emperor Otis Redding, rock chick Janis Joplin and rock guitar maestro Jimi Hendrix helped to bring Masekela into the public eye. In 1968, he released Grazing in the Grass, which went on to hog the number one spot on the pop and R&B charts.
His efforts were rewarded with a Grammy for “Best Contemporary Pop Performance-Instrumental”. He was to tour Guinea with Makeba in 1970 alongside Nigerian Afrobeat king Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Hedzolah Soundz and Dudu Pukwana. What a time to live.
Masekela was pivotal in gathering the artistes who toured on Paul Simon’s Graceland. The tour had Mama Africa Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Ray Phiri, and Bakithi Khumalo, to name a few. Masekela and Paul Simon were friends dating back to the 1960s in the US. But the tour was violating the United Nations’ cultural boycott and Masekela vigorously backed the tour, leading to Simon’s removal from the blacklist. Masekela had the clout to see it through successfully.
It came to Zimbabwe, drawing a multiracial crowd that sang along tracks such as Homeless, You can call me Al and Nkosi Sikelela Africa. Music won the proverbial day and proved that art can build bridges, even if it was for a moment. 1987 was also the year of Masekela’s seminal hit Bring Him Back Home. Masekela was to produce the music for Sarafina, among others. He also featured in a documentary film from 2003 called Amandla!
It is undeniable, Masekela is a legend. He wrote his own obituary by his life’s work. Thankfully, South Africa honoured him. He bid us farewell and honoured his Zimbabwean roots publicly. He was a Zimbabwean by origin and a South African by birth and nurturing. President Jacob Zuma awarded him the National Order of Ikhamanga in Gold in 2010 for his sterling contribution to music and activism against apartheid along with honorary doctorates in music from Rhodes and York universities. Ghana did better than Zimbabwe by awarding him the African Music Legend Award in 2007. The National Arts Council of Zimbabwe should consider a posthumous Lifetime Achivement Award. At least!