The world lost one of it’s greatest musical ambassadors of Pan Africanism the day it lost Hugh Masekela, known as “Bra Hugh” in South Africa and much of the world. One of my best-received blog postings on “riquespeaks” dealt with the history of Masekela in Liberia during the 1970s. As exciting as that period was for me personally, it was only one small portion of the truly incredible life Bra Hugh led.
Hugh’s South African origins put him in a unique position to understand the African diaspora, and he parlayed that into one of the most unique bodies of work in musical history. His musical journey through life started in South Africa and took him to the United States, both New York and Los Angeles, Lagos, Nigeria, Ghana, Zaire, Guinea, and many other points along the Transatlantic world. He parlayed this unusual cultural fluency into a songbook that covers a wide array of Pan African experiences, such as “Stimela”, “”African Secret Society”, “Grazing in the Grass”, “Bring Him Back Home”, “Mama”, “Mami Wata”, and many others. He utilized his fellow South African natives such as Philemon Hou (the composer of “Grazing in the Grass”), as well as Los Angeles by way of Houston, Texas musicians The Jazz Crusaders, and at other times, the Ghanian musicians who made up Hezbollah Soundz. Truly I can not think of too many other musicians who have covered so many points on the African diaspora as Bra Hugh.
It all began as a young jazz loving man in South Africa. Hugh, born in 1939, was a youth during the years that the Apartied system began to become more strictly codified into law. The Apartied system itself was inspired by the Jim Crow system in America, and also had many things in common with the suppression of Indigenous people in the States. One of the insights I got from his autobiography that surprised me was that, looking at American movies that featured Black people way back in the ’40s and ’50s, Hugh and his compatriots viewed the United States as a progressive place where Black people had freedom, as the thought of white Boers making movies that featured Blacks was totally inconceivable at that time. He would soon get the chance to come to America and see the strain of racism that influenced that of his country.
Masekela grew up in the unique position of being an African who had a strong connection to the culture of African Americans, through the language of jazz music. He was a huge Louis Armstrong fan, in addition to following the newer be bop school as represented by Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. He actually received a trumpet from Louis Armstrong himself, mailed all the way from the States to South Africa. Eventually, he was sponsored by Harry Belafonte to come to the States to study music, and he would come to be mentored by Dizzy Gillespie, another one of his childhood trumpet heroes.
Of course, now would be the perfect time to mention his relationship to Mama Africa, Mariam Makeba. Mariam was actually several years older than Hugh and it seems their relationship was more of an infatuation on Hugh’s part in the beginning. But Miss Makeba played a pivotal part in Hugh’s life, setting up his connection to come to America, housing him when he got here and in general, teaching him about the facts of life. Eventually, this would include their famed marriage, which also put him in a rarefied jazz club, along with great artists like Max Roach and Miles Davis, in terms of being a jazzman and having a wife that was a well renowned creative force in her own right.
Makeba facilitated life in New York City for Hugh, where he studied music on scholarship from Belafonte and immersed himself in the early ’60s jazz scene. The early ’60s was a fertile creative time for jazz, although not the absolute height of the music’s popularity commercially. During that time period, representatives of every school of jazz existed, from New Orleans trad, to Swing, to Be Bop, to Free Jazz, Soul jazz and the different schools that would dominate the ’70s, including fusion. It was a somewhat daunting environment to learn in, with the music existing and yet going through so many changes. It was Miles Davis, himself a searcher for new forms who told Masekela, “Don’t try to play the shit we playing here. Take what you learn here and do what you know from over there (Africa) and do some shit that NONE of us can play.”
That is exactly what Masekela did when he recorded Philemon Hou’s “Grazing in the Grass.” The lazy, funky instrumental, replete with cowbell and a beautifully soulful melody, became one of the signature hits of the late 1960s. Masekela took that success and hit the very heights of the entertainment industry from a social standpoint, marrying Cab Calloway’s daughter and hobnobbing with stars like Sly Stone.
Masekela was in a very precarious position however, and as the open nature of the ’60s passed on, it was very hard for him as a South African banned in his own country to sustain hits in the United States. He covered all the bases, and yet lacked a base of his own at the same time. And his music began to become more and more political after the feel-good triumph of “Grazing in the Grass.”
So he took his music to Africa, and what he did there was very unique in its time and even today. He left the United States and put his musical celebrity behind trying to bring African music more to the forefront. His ban in his home country of South Africa facilitated his development as a Pan Africanist musical impresario, as he began to focus on West Africa during the ’70s. He worked with Fela Kuti and recruited bands from the West African region. The albums he recorded during the ’70s with Hezdollah Soundz, and on his own record label with Crusaders producer Stewart Levine, Chisa, are all worthwhile Afro Funk workouts that could easily satisfy modern crate diggers.
Hugh also cast his personal lot in Africa at that time, living in Guinea and Liberia. He also was instrumental in organizing the concert that paired with the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight, featured in the movies “Soul Power” and “When We Were Kings.” The concert was even more of a Pan Africanist festival in its planning than what it eventually turned out to be, as the list of artists that didnt make it included Fela Kuti, Stevie Wonder, Barry White, Miles Davis and Aretha Franklin. Hugh was cheated out of the proceeds of that concert by Don King, but the achievement of putting it on still looms large in Pan African history.
Hugh never again had a hit like “Grazing in the Grass” but that does not negate the body of work he made that was largely autobiographical, especially when you listen to songs such as “You Told Your Mama Not To Worry”, and “The Boy is Doin’ It”, which detail his long life away from South Africa. As the tide was eventually turned against Apartheid, Hugh was a key musical fighter in those battles as well. Re-examining his body of work will unearth a treasure trove of musical bounty.
His autobiography “Still Grazing” is one of my absolute favorite books and one I recommend to any fan of his, lover of music, Pan Africanist, historian of the ’60s-80s, and every bibliophile and lover of a good story. One of the things that struck me was the similarities his life had to that of his hero Miles Davis, although their personalities were rather different. But they had many interesting parallels and points of intersection, from Miles advice to play a mixture of American Black and African music, to their marriages to powerful female entertainers that they both tried to downplay ( Hugh to Mariam and Miles to Cicely), their drug addiction, the turn they both took away from pure jazz into a music that fused R&B and rock with jazz, and they also had many points of intersection in New York City, even dating some of the same women, and the impact Hugh had on Miles during Miles silent period, playing at the Nightclub Mikell’s. It also has much in common with that other jazz trumpeter who made it big, Quincy Delight Jones. All of these make for complelling reading and a story that brings a wider view of Jazz and popular music in the changes of the 1960s.
Mainly, when I think of Hugh’s life, I’m happy for him more than I’m sad that he passed. He survived both Aparteid and the pain of being away from his country for 40 years while also making music and recieivng love from many people. And he lived long enough to see majority rule return to South Africa and to serve as a respected cultural ambassador for his country, spending the last 20 plus years at home in South Africa. It all adds up to one of the most incredible lives imaginable and one we should be happy was set to music.