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RIP: South African Trumpeter Hugh Masekela, The Man Who Blew Freedom’s Horn, Dead At 78

Hugh_Masekela

 

NEW YORK TIMES: The next year he joined Abdullah Ibrahim (then known as Dollar Brand) and four other upstart instrumentalists in the Jazz Epistles, South Africa’s first bebop band of note. With a heavy, driving pulse and warm, arcing melodies, their music was distinctly South African, even as its swing rhythms and flittering improvisations reflected affinities with American jazz.

“There had never been a group like the Epistles in South Africa,” Mr. Masekela said in his 2004 autobiography, “Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela,” written with D. Michael Cheers. “Our tireless energy, complex arrangements, tight ensemble play, languid slow ballads and heart-melting, hymnlike dirges won us a following, and soon we were breaking all attendance records in Cape Town.”

The group recorded just one album, which was printed in a run of 500 and eventually became a kind of Holy Grail for collectors. After the so-called Sharpeville Massacre in March 1960, in which 69 protesters were killed by police officers in a township outside Johannesburg, the government banned public gatherings of more than 10 black people. This forced groups like the Jazz Epistles to take their performances underground; Mr. Masekela and Mr. Ibrahim soon chose to leave the country.

In 1960, Mr. Masekela moved briefly to London, where he studied at the Guildhall School of Music, before the singers Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba helped him secure a scholarship to attend the Manhattan School of Music. He studied classical trumpet there for four years.

In 1962, he recorded his debut album, “Trumpet Africaine,” for the Mercury label. He followed it in 1964 with “Grrr,” also on Mercury. That album — which featured the trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, a veteran of the Jazz Epistles who had also relocated to New York — included a number of Masekela originals that reflected his devotion to his musical roots. On tunes like “Sharpeville,” the effortless churn of the rhythms and the thrumming harmonies reflected the influence of marabi, an instrumental style developed in the early 20th century by workers in the townships outside Johannesburg. […]

In 1964, Mr. Masekela and Stewart Levine, a fellow student at the Manhattan School, established the independent label Chisa, named for the Zulu word for “burn.” The two would remain lifelong collaborators and friends. The label struck gold in 1968 when Mr. Masekela released the album “The Promise of a Future,” featuring “Grazing in the Grass.” With a sanguine two-chord hook, the song registered as a beatific ode to summer; it was released in May and hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in mid-July. MORE

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