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Hugh Masekela, South African Jazz Musician and Activist, Dies at 78

Hugh Masekela, South African jazz musician and political activist, died Jan. 23 in Johannesburg, South Africa of prostate cancer. He was 78.

Masekela was a trumpeter, flugelhornist, composer, and singer. He played the trumpet in the Huddleston Jazz Band which showcased his signature Afro-jazz sound. He also performed in the 1959 musical “King Kong” written by Todd Matshikiza. He then joined South African group the Jazz Epistles with members Kippie Moeketsi, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Jonas Gwangwa.

When Masekela moved to Los Angles in the 1960s, he pursued a solo career. He performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 alongside Otis Redding, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, and Janis Joplin. Masekela’s song “Grazin’ in the Grass” hit number one on the American pop charts. His released over 40 albums during his five-decade career, and worked with artists such as Harry Belafonte, Marvin Gaye, Paul Simon, and Stevie Wonder.

Born in Witbank, South Africa, Masekela became an advocate for equal rights at 14. In 1960, he was exiled from South Africa and arrived in New York to enroll at the Manhattan School of Music. He released he debut album titled “Trumpet Africaine” in 1963. Masekela created the anti-apartheid anthem “Bring Home Nelson Mandela” before returning to South Africa. In 2010, South African President Jacob Zuma awarded him with the highest order in South Africa: The Order of Ikhamanga.

Masekela’s son Selema, a film and TV producer, journalist and musician, remembered his father as a man of deep convictions.

“As a product of the meticulously designed apartheid regime of 20th century South Africa, my father’s life was the definition of activism and resistance,” he said. “Despite the open arms of many countries, for 30 years he refused to take citizenship anywhere else on this earth. His belief too strong that the pure evil of a systematic racist oppression could and would be crushed. …He carried a deep-seeded belief in justice, freedom and equality for all peoples to the very end.”

In addition to Selema, Masekela is survived by his daughter, Pula Twala, and two sisters.

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