President Nana Akufo-Addo has extolled the credentials of the late South African jazz musician, Hugh Masakela, describing him as a unique and compelling individual.
In a moving tribute to the late musician, President Nana Addo acknowledged Masakela’s significant role in fighting apartheid in South Africa.
The President was in South Africa for the funeral of the late musician, where he paid the glowing tribute.
“He bore his exile with dignity. He never lost his belief that the inhuman system of apartheid would be dismantled, and that South Africa would, one day, be free. And he did his best to ensure that happened. He was one of the most prominent of the South African exiles, who kept the struggle alive before the eyes and conscience of the world, and he did it largely through his wonderful music,” the President recalled.
The President also reminisced the times they shared together as friends both in South Africa and back home during his inauguration.
“What an amazing life he lived, and did virtually everything he wanted to do. We met a long time ago, nearly 50 years ago. Predictably, for both of us at the time, it was at the bar of Keteke, then the hottest night club (or disco, as they were then being called) in Accra. He was already a legend – “King Kong”, and “Grazing in the Grass” had seen to that.
“But, he wore none of that. Simple, straightforward, he exuded fun and warmth. Many drinks later, we became firm friends, and looked out for and saw each other at various clubs across the world – New York, London, Paris, Lagos, Abidjan, Lome – wherever we were together, we would meet and party. Nobody partied like Masakela. From the beginning, that is what I called him – Masakela – and he called me Nana. It never changed. For some reason, I could never come to terms with Hugh or Bra Hugh. He was Masakela, unique and compelling,”he added.
Masekela was born on 4 April 1939 in Witbank.
As a child, he began playing the piano, but a movie about jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, Young Man with a Horn, inspired him to shift his musical allegiances.
Anti-apartheid activist Father Trevor Huddleston, helped Masekela to acquire a trumpet and ensured he received tuition, resulting in him rapidly joining South Africa’s first youth orchestra, the Huddleston Jazz Band.
In the late 50s, Masekela joined up with Dollar Brand (later known as Abdullah Ibrahim), Kippie Moeketsi, Jonas Gwangwa, Johnny Gertze, and alternately Early Mabuza or Makaya Ntshoko on drums, to form The Jazz Epistles, who regularly performed at the Odin Theatre in Sophiatown.
In 1959, Masekela joined the cast of Todd Matshikiza’s “all-African jazz opera” King Kong. The musical, which also helped launch the career of Miriam Makeba, received permission to perform in London in 1961.
With the Sharpeville massacre in mind and with jazz being seen as an expression of resistance, performances and broadcasts in South Africa were severely restricted. Masekela took the opportunity, along with many other members of the cast, to remain in England, effectively going into exile, and enrolled at the London Guildhall School of Music, later moving to the Manhattan School of Music in New York.
Here he befriended musician and political activist Harry Belafonte, and his music increasingly began reflecting the harsh realities of repression and discrimination back home.
Masekela married Miriam Makeba in 1964, but the couple divorced in 1966.
Masekela had success in the United States with a pop-jazz tune, “Up, Up and Away”, in 1967.
He performed at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, alongside Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, before releasing Grazing in the Grass in 1968, which reached number one on the pop and R&B charts.
In 1970, he toured Guinea with Miriam Makeba and met Nigerian AfroBeat musician Fela Kuti and the Ghanian band Hedzoleh Soundz.
This led to his breakthrough album “Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz”, one of the most highly regarded Afro-jazz albums of the decade.