Hugh Masekela,
An appreciation from
New Orleans

When South African superstar Hugh Masekela was forced to cancel his 2017 appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, few expected the ebullient, slyly subversive, anti-apartheid trumpeter, gravel-voiced singer, and international music icon would be dead less than a year later. He died in Johannesburg on Tuesday, January 23 at the age of 78.

The prostate cancer that silenced his buoyant horn and irrepressible voice ended a long career that included numerous performances in New Orleans. It also scuttled a highly anticipated reunion at Jazz Fest with pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (nee Dollar Brand) and their definitive South African jazz band, the Jazz Epistles. The group drew heavily on American bebop, a style simultaneously influencing New Orleanians such as Ellis Marsalis, James Black, and Harold Battiste in the 1950s and 1960s. Masekela was also scheduled to perform a “Salute to Louis Armstrong” with New Orleans trumpeter James Andrews and clarinetist Dr. Michael White.

Most Americans became familiar with Masekela when his hit “Grazing in the Grass” topped the charts in 1968. But for New Orleanians, it was the Rebirth Brass Band’s youthfully exuberant cover of the song, which appeared on their Rebirth Kickin’ It Live album in 1991 and was consistently in their live sets during the period.

While Masekela’s original version of the song is a classic, Rebirth’s take defines the tune for a generation of New Orleans music lovers with Kermit Ruffins hitting the high notes and the brass band’s furiously syncopated rhythm churning away.

Masekela was no stranger to the city outside of Jazz Fest and undoubtedly was familiar with Rebirth’s version. In 1993 he played at the short-lived African Heritage Festival International on Poydras Street. The Rebirth Brass Band did a short set after he performed. They were fully amped after hearing a band of South African musicians playing the original.

In November 2000, Masekela performed in front of a small crowd at the intimate Tremé Music Festival, His astonishingly transcendent set was split between jazz and African dance music. He introduced his inspiring anthem, “Mandela (Bring Him Back Home)” by explaining that the reason that Nelson Mandela got out of politics was because, “at the ripe old age of 82 he is having a torrid love affair!” Continuing, tongue firmly in cheek, he said, “When I grow up, if I ever grow up, I want to be just like him.”

During that visit, which also included a show at Tipitina’s the following night, Masekela toured the Tremé neighborhood and compared it both positively and negatively to the South African township of Soweto. He remarked on architectural similarities, the innate musicality of the two neighborhoods, the presence of so many children with precocious musical talent and, of course, the entrenched intergenerational poverty.

Masekela played frequently at the Jazz Fest beginning in 1992. His last performance at the Fairgrounds was in 2009 when his horn and infectious personality were ubiquitous. He played a set of more or less straight up modern jazz and remarked to the audience, “It’s the first time I’ve been allowed in the jazz tent” before bringing his more danceable, pop-oriented style to a vast crowd at the Congo Square stage later that afternoon.

A day before his triumphant performances on two separate stages, Masekela sat in with fellow South African musicians Busi Mhlongo and Vusi Mahlasela unleashing wicked flugelhorn solos and essentially taking over the band much to the younger musicians’ delight. His humor was on full display when he introduced the members of the group as being from “Baton Rouge.” He even appeared on the main stage that day adding a flugelhorn solo to Carlos Santana’s bubbling Latin jams.

Over the course of his life, Hugh Masekela was a fearless advocate for the oppressed and lived in exile for 30 years during South Africa’s apartheid period. But he never gave up hope or his South African citizenship.

His effervescent personality was informed by many of the influences, both musical and otherwise, that have shaped the musicians of New Orleans. He felt at home here, even recording a promotional spot for community radio station WWOZ, because he recognized the deep connections between the two places and the two peoples.

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