Born Hugh Ramopolo Masekela, April 4, 1931, in Witbank, South Africa; father was a health inspector and sculptor; married Miriam Makeba (a singer; divorced, 1966). Education: Attended Guildhall School of Music, London, England; attended the Manhattan School of Music, New York City, 1960-64.

South African trumpeter, fleugelhornist, composer, and singer Hugh Masekela is an acknowledged master of African music. He is also one of his country's most recognizable freedom fighters in the battle against the racist rule of apartheid. Masekela was born on April 4, 1939, in Witbank, a coal mining town near Johannesburg, South Africa. Although his father was a health inspector and acclaimed sculptor, the Masekela home was a modest one, and young Hugh was raised by his grandmother. By age six Masekela was singing the songs of the street and at age nine began attending missionary schools, where he learned to play the piano.

Masekela first became interested in playing the trumpet after seeing the 1949 film Young Man With a Horn, the story of Bix Beiderbecke. Initially Masekela's greatest influences were the performers of American swing. Later he became interested in be-bop jazz and the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, whom Masekela credits with the development of his talent. As a teenager Masekela began playing trumpet with South African dance bands, some of which toured major African cities. In 1958 he joined Alfred Herbert's African Jazz Revue and the following year formed his own band, the Jazz Epistles, with pianist Dollar Brand, drummer Makaya Ntshoko, trombonist Jonas Gwanga, and alto saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi.

As a black man, South African music schools were closed to Masekela; he was forced to go abroad to continue his musical training. He studied at London's Guildhall School of Music and received a scholarship from American calypso star and human rights activist Harry Belafonte to the Manhattan School of Music, in New York City, which he attended from 1960 to 1964. Staying on the the U.S., Masekela also worked with Belafonte's Clara Music and arranged the music on several albums for his then-wife, African folksinger Miriam Makeba, from whom he was divorced in 1966.

In 1964 Masekela teamed with fellow student Stewart Levine to found Chisa Records. The Emancipation of Hugh Masekela was the first of 11 albums the duo produced. In 1968 Masekela became one of the first African artists to pierce America's pop music world when his song "Grazing in the Grass" topped Billboard' s singles chart for two weeks. Written in the style of mbaqanga --a combination of traditional Zulu music and black American pop--"Grazing in the Grass" clearly reflected Masekela's African heritage. Masekela toured parts of Africa in 1973, playing with a variety of African musicians. In Ghana he met Nigerian "Afro-beat" purveyor and protest singer Fela and the Ghanian group Hedzoleh Soundz. He became the group's leader and recorded Masekela: Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz with them in 1973. The following year Masekela and Hedzoleh Soundz toured the United States.

Having spent the better part of the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S., Masekela moved back to Africa in 1980, eventually settling in Botswana, where he lived for four and a half years--though he would later return to the U.S. He arranged for a mobile recording studio to be shipped from California, and working with Jive Afrika Records, released the album Technobush. The single "Don't Go Lose It Baby," topped dance charts in the U.S. In 1986 Masekela founded the Botswana International School of Music, a nonprofit institute dedicated to training African musicians. The following year he signed on a guest star with American singer-songwriter Paul Simon's Graceland tour, which was a popular and critical success, though accompanied by criticism from some who claimed that Simon had violated a United Nations cultural boycott of South Africa when he recorded parts of the album Graceland in Johannesburg. Masekela, however, had not performed on the record.

Earlier, in 1983, Masekela had met South African playwright Mbongemi Ngema, author of several critically acclaimed plays. One of them is Woza Albert, in which Ngema used Masekela's song "Coal Train." After seeing a performance of the play, Masekela went backstage to meet Ngema. They became friends and decided to collaborate on a piece of theater. Winnie Mandela, wife of then-imprisoned South African political activist Nelson Mandela, suggested that they portray the children of South Africa and their resistance to bantu education, which prepares them to serve the white minority in their country.

Ngema wrote the book and some of the music for what was to become Sarafina!, titled for the main character, who bears a woman's name common in the townships around Johannesburg. He asked Masekela to compose additional music. Loosely structured, the play is more like a series of choral set pieces than musical theater, but the songs and dances are all tied together thematically by the famed Soweto uprising; the action takes place in the schoolyard of the Morris Issacson High School, the site of the 1976 uprising in which nearly 600 students were killed and many more shot by police for protesting the teaching of Afrikaans--considered by them the language of white colonialist oppression--instead of English. In Sarafina!, the students at the school, inspired by their student leader, Sarafina, produce a play that depicts the release of the imprisoned Mandela.

Ngema auditioned and rehearsed about 20 young South Africans from the townships for roles in Sarafina! The members of the ten-piece band that provided the production's energetic mbquanga music are dressed as soldiers; they play on a set made up of a chain link fence and a tank. At the beginning of the piece, the performers are dressed in the trouser-and-blouse uniforms of the school, but by the end, they appear in tribal costumes, dancing, singing about their heritage, and protesting their oppression.

At its 1987 premier in South Africa Sarafina! was an immediate hit. It went from Johannesburg to New York City's Lincoln Center later that year, and in January 1988 moved to Broadway, where, an instant success, it played for two years to sell-out crowds before beginning a national tour. A second troupe was formed to perform the Tony Award-nominated musical in Europe. "I think it's one of the most rewarding projects I've done," Masekela told Detroit News and Free Press contributor Cassandra Spratling.

When Masekela left South Africa to study music, he began what was to become a roughly three-decade self-imposed exile in protest of apartheid. Despite his physical separation, however, he never lost his emotional and cultural ties to his country, or the desire to see his homeland freed from racial inequality. "I'm not the kind of musician you hear saying 'my music,'" Masekela told the Washington Post' s Donna Britt. "I don't think I have music. I think everybody gets music from the community they come from.... And every note that I play, every song that I've ever worked on is really from the people. And their freedom will usher in a place where I can say, 'Now I'm an artist.'"

In late 1990 Masekela returned to a slowly changing South Africa to visit his mother's grave for the first time. He also established a residence to use during part of the year, thus effectively ending his exile. Masekela spoke hopefully in the Boston Herald of his plan to spend time in his country. "I will go back a lot now I think. There is no doubt in our minds that we will be free one day soon and that South Africa will become a normal society. There's a lot of work to be done with the reconstruction that will be coming up. We'll all have to be a part of it."

by Jeanne M. Lesinski

Hugh Masekela's Career

Began playing trumpet with South African dance bands while a teenager; member of Alfred Herbert's African Jazz Revue, 1958-59; formed band the Jazz Epistles, 1959; studied music in England and the U.S., 1960-64; co-founder of Chisa Records, 1965; leader of various musical groups, 1965--; joined the Kalahari Band; founded the Botswana International School of Music, 1986; co-wrote musical Sarafina!; produced songs for group Hedzoleh Sounds, 1991. Featured in Jacques Holender's video, Musicians in Exile, Rhapsody Films.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

May 24, 2005: Masekela's album, Revival, was released. Source:,, May 30, 2005.

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 15 years ago

My son is learning trumpet and is an avid fan of Hugh Masekela. I am searching for sheet music for songs composed or performed by him, written for trumpet. I have so far come up empty handed. Can anyone help me?