Hugh Masekela Biography: Early Years and Jazz Epistles

Hugh Masekela Biography: Early Years and Jazz Epistles

Hugh Masekela, the iconic South African musician, was born on April 4, 1939, in the township of KwaGuqa in Witbank, South Africa. His parents, Thomas Selena Masekela and Pauline Bowers Masekela, instilled in him a love for music and activism from a young age. Growing up, he was exposed to the struggles of apartheid, which deeply influenced his music and activism throughout his life.

Hugh Masekela

Hugh Ramapolo Masekela

4 April 1939

Emalahleni, Union of South Africa
Died 23 January 2018 (aged 78)

Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Multi-instrumentalist
  • singer
  • composer
  • bandleader
  • political activist
Years active 1956–2018
Children Selema Masekela
Relatives Barbara Masekela (sister)
Musical career
  • Afropop
  • jazz
  • mbaqanga
  • Trumpet
  • flugelhorn
  • trombone
  • cornet
  • vocals
  • Mercury
  • MGM
  • Uni
  • Chisa
  • Blue Thumb
  • Casablanca
  • Heads Up
  • Verve
  • PolyGram

Masekela’s musical journey began when he was introduced to the trumpet at the age of 14, inspired by the film “Young Man with a Horn.” With Archbishop Trevor Huddleston’s support, he acquired his first trumpet and began honing his skills under the guidance of Uncle Sauda, the leader of the Johannesburg “Native” Municipal Brass Band. Masekela quickly mastered the instrument and went on to join various ensembles, including Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz Revue.

Early life

In the late 1950s, Masekela’s career gained momentum as he joined the orchestra of the musical “King Kong,” South Africa’s first major theatrical success. The musical, which toured the country and later the West End in London, showcased Masekela’s talent and brought him recognition as a rising star in the music scene.

Masekela’s music became a voice for the oppressed and marginalized in South Africa, addressing themes of apartheid, oppression, and social injustice. His compositions, such as “Soweto Blues” and “Bring Him Back Home,” became anthems of the anti-apartheid movement, earning him the title of “the father of South African jazz.”

Throughout his career, Masekela used his platform to advocate for political change and social justice. His music resonated with audiences around the world, bringing attention to the struggles faced by the people of South Africa. Masekela’s legacy continues to inspire musicians and activists globally, embodying the power of music to effect social change.


Hugh Masekela’s life and career were marked by a profound commitment to music and activism, particularly in the face of apartheid in South Africa. Here’s a comprehensive overview of his journey:

  • Early Years and Jazz Epistles: In 1959, Masekela, along with Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim), Kippie Moeketsi, and others, formed the Jazz Epistles, the first African jazz group to record an LP. They gained significant popularity in South Africa, but after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 and the subsequent ban on gatherings, Masekela left the country.
  • International Recognition: With the help of Trevor Huddleston and others, Masekela moved to London to study music and later to the United States. He achieved success internationally, with hits like “Grazing in the Grass” and collaborations with artists like Harry Belafonte and Paul Simon.
  • Activism Through Music: Masekela’s music became a powerful tool for addressing apartheid and advocating for social justice. Songs like “Bring Him Back Home” became anthems for the anti-apartheid movement, earning him recognition as a leading voice against oppression.
  • Exploration of African Roots: Throughout his career, Masekela explored his African roots through collaborations with musicians from West and Central Africa. He also founded the Botswana International School of Music, fostering musical education and collaboration in the region.
  • Later Years: In his later years, Masekela continued to perform and collaborate, including a reunion with Abdullah Ibrahim and the Jazz Epistles in 2016. He remained active in music and advocacy until his passing in 2018, leaving behind a lasting legacy as a pioneer of African jazz and a tireless champion for social justice.

Hugh Masekela’s impact extended far beyond the realm of music, inspiring generations of artists and activists to use their voices for positive change.

Personal life and death

Hugh Masekela’s personal life was marked by significant relationships and family ties:

  • Marriages: Masekela was married several times throughout his life. His first marriage was to singer and activist Miriam Makeba from 1964 to 1966. He later married Chris Calloway, daughter of Cab Calloway, as well as Jabu Mbatha and Elinam Cofie.
  • Children: Masekela was the father of Selema Masekela, who is known for his work as an American television host. He also had other children from his various relationships.
  • Family: Masekela’s younger sister, Barbara Masekela, is a prominent poet, educator, and activist.
  • Later Years and Death: In the final years of his life, Masekela lived with dancer Nomsa Manaka. He battled prostate cancer, and sadly passed away in Johannesburg on January 23, 2018, at the age of 78.

Masekela’s personal life reflected his rich and diverse experiences, both in his relationships and in his contributions to music and activism.


Hugh Masekela’s discography spans several decades and encompasses a wide range of musical styles.

Here’s an overview of his albums:

  • 1960s: Masekela released numerous albums during the 1960s, including “Trumpet Africaine” (1962), “Grrr” (1966), “The Americanization of Ooga Booga” (1966), and “The Emancipation of Hugh Masekela” (1966).
  • 1970s: In the 1970s, he continued his prolific output with albums like “Home Is Where the Music Is” (1972), “I Am Not Afraid” (1974), and “The Boy’s Doin’ It” (1975).
  • 1980s: Masekela’s releases in the 1980s included “Techno-Bush” (1984), “Waiting for the Rain” (1985), and “Tomorrow” (1987), among others.
  • 1990s: During the 1990s, he released albums such as “Hope” (1994), “Notes of Life” (1996), and “Sixty” (1999).
  • 2000s: In the 2000s, Masekela continued to produce music with albums like “Time” (2002), “Live at the BBC” (2002), and “Phola” (2009).
  • 2010s: His later releases include “Jabulani” (2012), “No Borders” (2016), and “Rejoice” (2020), a collaboration with Tony Allen.

Here’s the list.

  • 1962: Trumpet Africaine (Mercury)
  • 1966: Grrr (Mercury MG-21109, SR-61109)
  • 1966: The Americanization of Ooga Booga (MGM E/SE-4372)
  • 1966: Hugh Masekela’s Next Album (MGM E/SE-4415)
  • 1966: The Emancipation of Hugh Masekela (Chisa Records CHS-4101)
  • 1967: Hugh Masekela’s Latest (Uni 3010, 73010)
  • 1967: Hugh Masekela Is Alive and Well at the Whiskey (Uni 3015, 73015)
  • 1968: The Promise of a Future (Uni 73028)
  • 1968: Africa ’68 (Uni 73020)
  • 1968: The Lasting Impression of Hugh Masekela (MGM E/SE-4468)
  • 1969: Masekela (Uni 73041)
  • 1969: The Best Of Masekela (Uni 73051)
  • 1970: Reconstruction (Chisa CS 803)
  • 1971: Hugh Masekela & The Union of South Africa (Chisa CS 808)
  • 1972: Home Is Where the Music Is (Blue Thumb Chisa BTS 6003)
  • 1973: Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz (Blue Thumb Chisa BTS 62)
  • 1974: I Am Not Afraid (Blue Thumb Chisa BTS 6015)
  • 1975: The Boy’s Doin’ It (Casablanca NBLP-7017)
  • 1976: Colonial Man (Casablanca NBLP-7023)
  • 1976: Melody Maker (Casablanca NBLP-7036)
  • 1977: You Told Your Mama Not to Worry (Casablanca NBLP-7079)
  • 1978: Herb Alpert / Hugh Masekela (Horizon SP-728)
  • 1978: Main Event Live (with Herb Alpert) (A&M SP-4727)
  • 1982: Home (Moonshine/Columbia)
  • 1984: Techno-Bush (Jive Afrika)
  • 1985: Waiting for the Rain (Jive Afrika)
  • 1987: Tomorrow (Warner Bros.)
  • 1989: Uptownship (Jive/Novus Records)
  • 1992: Beatin’ Aroun de Bush (Novus Records)
  • 1994: Hope (Triloka Records)
  • 1994: Stimela (Connoisseur Collection)
  • 1996: Notes of Life (Columbia/Music)
  • 1998: Black to the Future (Shanachie Records)
  • 1999: The Best of Hugh Masekela on Novus (RCA)
  • 1999: Sixty (Shanachie)
  • 2001: Grazing in the Grass: The Best of Hugh Masekela (Sony)
  • 2002: Time (Columbia)
  • 2002: Live at the BBC (Strange Fruit)
  • 2003: The Collection (Universal/Spectrum)
  • 2004: Still Grazing (Blue Thumb)
  • 2005: Revival (Heads Up)
  • 2005: Almost Like Being in Jazz (Chissa Records)
  • 2006: The Chisa Years: 1965–1975 (Rare and Unreleased) (BBE)
  • 2007: Live at the Market Theatre (Four-Quarters Ent)
  • 2009: Phola (Four-Quarters Ent)
  • 2011: Friends (Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis) (House of Masekela)
  • 2012: Playing @ Work (House of Masekela)
  • 2012: Jabulani (Listen 2)
  • 2016: No Borders (Universal Music)

This extensive discography reflects Masekela’s versatility and innovation as a musician, with each album showcasing his unique blend of jazz, African rhythms, and political consciousness.

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