A brief look into some of Hugh Masekela’s career highlights and hits, the political and social atmosphere at given time as well as its impact on his musical style and lyrical messages.
Part 1: Pre Exile
1953, Hugh Ramapolo Masekela aged 14 picks up a trumpet for the first time. In hindsight it is quite safe to say that very moment has to go down as one of significance in all senses. With that his journey in music promptly began as he went on to join the Huddleston Jazz Band alongside Jonas Gwangwa and a few years later on he formed part of the orchestra of the Theatre musical King Kong.
In year 1960, due to his work fundraising for the then banned ANC and his other political activism activities Bra Hugh was forced to flee the country and was subsequently banned from re-entering by the then government. In the period between kick starting his musical career and leaving the country in 1960 he released tracks including Scullery Department and Blues for Hughie as part of the group, Jazz Epistles that included Abdullah Ibrahim and Mr. Gwangwa. He had also started work on his album Trumpet Africaine which he released three years later in the States.
Part 2: Early Exile
Bra Hugh went into exile quite early in his musical career having yet to release an album and arguably yet to settle on a style of his own that wasn’t heavily influenced by his surroundings. Now without the constraints of the then South African government I think Bra Hugh found himself in a space where he was allowed to be more expressive in sound and in personality and as a result formed himself a reputation as somewhat a rebellious and controversial figure often playing on the borderline. His sound though settled on an African infusion of the American jazz sounds of the early 60s, this is further emphasized by his recording of his billboard #1 hitting song Grazing in the Grass which was heavily inspired by Freddie Gumbi’s Mr Bull Dog #5 but was composed by American singer Philemon Hou in addition to also having the synth sound that was gaining prominence in the 60s in America.
When Masekela was recording an album in 1968, he needed one more song to fill it out. The record company suggested a tune called “Mr. Bull #5” that Masekela had heard on the radio… [it] became the instrumental hit “Grazing in the Grass.”
Between years 1966 and 1969 Bra Hugh released ten albums including four in 66′ and three in 68′. If anything this gives further indication of an artist in search of his own sound but also of an artist with new found creative freedom.
Bra Hugh’s early years in exile are best summarized by the title of his third album The Americanization of Ooga-Booga, Ooga Booga being a fictional “Ugly Bugger” character often perceived to be African. This album title not only played on his rebellious nature but also described his transitioning sound and perhaps even his relocation to America.
So in year 1972 Bra Hugh released an album titled Home is Where the Heart is, which featured a wide range of South Africans both in production and vocals and notably included the first recording of Nomali or Nomalizo if you like, featuring Bra Caiphus. I reckon recording this album either ignited a homesickness or it to was part of a homesickness that prompted Bra Hugh to relocate back to Africa in year 1973. Back in the continent, Bra Hugh moved across different countries exploring their sound, collaborating and making music.
It is during this time when some famous records such as Stimela in 1974, The Boy’s Doin’ It in 1975(recorded in Nigeria), Ha Le Se Le Di Khanna in 1980(recorded in Lesotho) as well as his first cover of the Fela Kuti’s Lady in 1985. In addition there is a recording titled “In The Market Place” from the album I Am Not Afraid released in1974 which I suspect might be the first recording of his hit Marketplace which is claimed to be released in 1994.
Part 3: Post Exile
To this day year 1990 probably stands as the most significant of years in South African history, it is the year that spelled the end of the Apartheid Era and the subsequent release of our “Black Jesus”, Nelson Mandela from prison. It also marked the return of Bra Hugh to the country after being exiled for 30 years. The change in political atmosphere meant he could now return with no fear nor threat on his life. This change in political atmosphere also meant that the tone and message of his music had to change, that which he’d advocated for till this point had to an extent been addressed.
So period 1990 till death in 2018, Bra Hugh’s music became more socially conscious and commentative and less political. In his early years back, his music became more of new found hope and appreciation of South Africa with several tracks titled after parts of it including Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg all in the album titled Home(1996) and of course Mbombela with Miriam Makeba on the album Sixty(1999).
In his new right as a socio and socio-economic advocate he released tracks such as Send Me(Thuma Mina), Chileshe and Khawuleza that addressed issues relating to HIV/Aids, Xenophobia, Racism and Classism. But above all most of Bra Hugh’s better known hits were released in his days post Exile with Thanayi also forming part of this list.
In terms of style, post exile Bra Hugh’s offering became more vocally infused than ever before, he also allowed his sound to bridge to other genres and collaborated with more and younger South Africans understandably so. Significant mentions include work with Mbongeni Ngema producing most of the hits from the movie Sarafina, and work with Thandiswa Mazwai, Black Coffee and Ralf Gum.
In hindsight most of Bra Hugh’s hit tracks might not be as old as one might have assumed, May his music live on and beyond!