Harare, Zimbabwe (News of the South)-South African jazz legend Hugh Ramopolo Masekela has died, aged 78.

 

Masekela lost his battle with prostate cancer , for which he had been treated since 2008.

 

In October, he cancelled a scheduled performance at the Hugh Masekela Heritage Festival in Rockville, Soweto to dedicate himself to battling the disease and called on all men to go for regular cancer check-ups.

 

Masekela was born on 4 April1939 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 his 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.

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