Born April 4, 1939, trumpeter, composer and bandleader Hugh Masekela was one of South Africa’s greatest cultural and musical exports, a man equally adept at commercializing the swirl of jazz and creating strident music that inspired a generation or two of the South African anti-apartheid movement. He was a man who could play a song of his own that hit No. 1 on international charts and also explore the incredible depth of Zulu mbaqanga music, sometimes in the same concert.
Someone whose music spanned such incredible breadth, for such a long time (more than 50 years, until his death in 2018) is impossible to sum up in just a few songs. Let no one say we’re unwilling to attempt the impossible - here are five stellar performances by Hugh Masekela that should serve as an appetizer for a deeper exploration into the man and his music.
“Up, Up and Away”
Most know this Jimmy Webb classic in its Top 10 hit version by The 5th Dimension. Here, Masekela follows the melodic template, playing unison lines with saxophonist Al Abreu, before clearing space to solo after the second chorus. That solo is a thing of beauty and restraint – it’s a shame this version was not a bigger hit.
“Grazing in the Grass”
A classic bit of late-’60s instrumental goodness that became a No. 1 hit in the United States. When people in the U.S. mention Masekela, it’s usually accompanied with a clip from this song.
“Don’t Go Lose It Baby"
By 1984, disco was mostly a long-gone memory, but nobody bothered to tell Masekela that, and he delivered this minor hit that lit up dance floors that year. Sounding like late-’70s Chic with a host of extra percussion, “Don’t Go Lose It Baby” maintains a consistent groove that swells when Masekela solos.
“Bring Him Back Home”
This 1987 anthem was a key to the soundtrack in rallies and on the streets in South Africa, demanding the release of activist and future South African president Nelson Mandela. Those sounds eventually grew too loud to ignore, the movement too strong for the government to push against. It took until 1990, but Mandela was indeed freed, which made imminent the collapse of the country’s apartheid government.
“Further to Fly” (with Paul Simon)
Masekela was more than a great bandleader – he was also a sympathetic accompanist and sideman, as one can hear on this cut from Paul Simon’s 1990 record The Rhythm of the Saints. Masekela had toured with Simon in support of Simon's classic 1986 album Graceland. Here, he settles back among the percussion and other wind instruments, riding the melody, content to build the foundation over which Simon and others can expound.