As It Happens

Remembering Hugh Masekela, activist and father of South African jazz

Hugh Masekela, South African jazz musician and political activist who spent 30 years in exile, died on Tuesday. He was 78.
Masekela spent 31 years in exile from the apartheid regime, ending with Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990. (Antony Njuguna/Reuters )

Read Story Transcript

Hugh Masekela will be not only be remembered as a dynamic force in the South African jazz scene, but as an activist whose political music forced him into exile, says his friend and fellow musician Nduduzo Makhathini. 

The legendary South African jazz musician has died after a decade-long battle with cancer. He was 78. 

"If there's one thing that was important to him, it was his people, their cultures and traditions. And this is what I think he represents," Makhathini told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"He spoke to so many people in so many different ways," his friend Nduduzo Makhathini says. (Kristy Sparow/Getty Images for Thelonious Monk)

Known as the father of South African jazz, Masekela began playing the trumpet at 14 and entered the Johannesburg jazz scene in the 1950s as a member of the Jazz Epistles. In the 1960s, while Nelson Mandela was in prison, Masekela went into exile for 31 years in the United Kingdom and the United States.

During that time, he used his music to spread awareness about the oppressive system of white-minority rule in South Africa.

His song, Bring Him Back Home, became an anti-apartheid anthem, calling for Nelson Mandela to be released from prison. He was also nominated for three Grammy Awards during his career.

Nduduzo Makhathini spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about his friend's legacy. Here is part of their conversation: 

Nduduzo, first of all, I'm sorry for the loss of your friend.

Yeah, it's quite a sad moment for us as his friends, fellow musicians. But also just a sad moment for the whole world at large because, you know, he was not just a South African musician, he was an internationally-acclaimed artist and cultural activist. He spoke to so many people in so many different ways.

A family statement issued on Twitter Tuesday Jan. 23, 2018, says South African jazz musician and anti-apartheid activist Hugh Masekela, 78, passed away in Johannesburg after a lengthy battle against prostate cancer. (Leon Neal/The Associated Press)

When you heard the news that Hugh Masekela had died, what went through your mind? What were your thoughts and memories of him?

First of all, I just wanted to pay tribute to him in the way that was possible at the time.

But also what I want to celebrate now going forward is sort of the devotion that Masekela portrayed throughout his career and commitment as well. In terms of just being there for his people. He came out in the '50s and '60s while in exile. At the time, black people had been moved from the cities and most of the venues where they used to play were shutting down. So expression was suppressed at all levels.

From left to right: Hugh Masekela, singer and ex-wife Mariam Makeba, then-African National Congress President Nelson Mandela and Paul Simon are shown at a 1992 event in Johannesburg. (Adil Bradlow/Associated Press)

So he was performing underground because you couldn't have a gathering of more than 10 black people so he couldn't do the concerts?

As a result, then he went to exile. But for me what really cuts through is the courage that he continued to have. If there's one thing that was important to him, it was his people, their cultures and traditions. And this is what I think he represents.   

He went into exile, self-imposed, for 30 years. He left South Africa. How difficult was that for him to do?

So he speaks about being in exile and starting to dream in English because he had not spoke his native tongue for a long time.

He says he was once in New York and he was really almost going crazy and he was walking and speaking in his native tongue, just to himself ... just because he felt that there was a need for him to connect with his people. To connect with home.  

Nduduzo Makhathini is a South African jazz pianist and a friend of Hugh Masekela. (Nduduzo Makhathini)

On a personal level, playing with him, knowing him, just being around him. What was it like?

First of all, I was playing with a great master, I was playing with a mentor and someone that I had always looked up to and wanted to play music with. And I sort of had my preconceived ideas about how he would be as an older musician that came from a particular generation that was committed to a certain aesthetic of music.

And to my amazement he was one of the ... most progressive musicians. So I would be playing certain things that I thought were modern and he would be just right there, you know. And would be excited to be playing music like that. And I think these were deeper parts within himself that was always a child and that was willing to evolve and that was always open and just excited about the very idea about living life and the very idea of existence. 

Makhathini says Masekela was one of the most progressive musicians he had ever played with. (Remy Gabalda/AFP/Getty Images)

— With files from the Associated Press


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.