Hugh Masekela: If you’re a boomlet, like me, you remember this South African-born trumpeter for his musical activism in the 1980s. Besides his involvement with the Broadway musical Sarafina and Paul Simon’s Graceland tour, Masekela’s 1987 hit song “Bring Him Back Home!” pictured Nelson Mandela walking free through the streets of Soweto. That song mobilized the world against apartheid, as we grooved to its optimism, sunny harmonies and catchy beat.
Masekela may be the father to a certain brand of African World pop, but his fusion of raw bebop with South African mbaquanga music first struck a nerve with the psychedelic generation. A few decades earlier, Boomers had flooded toward love-ins like the Monterrey Pop Festival (made famous in the D.A. Pennebaker documentary) to see Masekela alongside Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane.
Masekela’s breakthrough hit came in 1968 with the instrumental single “Grazing in the Grass,” but you might say his first break came when he was still a teenager in Johannesburg. Louis Armstrong sent a trumpet to the youth orchestra Masekela played in, the Huddleston Jazz Band, a group founded by an anti-apartheid priest.
Masekela soon left South Africa to escape the apartheid regime and pursue his musical education abroad. His exile took him first to London, then New York in the 1960s, where he joined the circle of prominent black entertainers and activists Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba and Dizzy Gillespie.
“Although rhythm and blues, gospel, and salsa were basically new horizons for me,” he wrote in his 2004 autobiography, Still Grazing, “it all felt like I’d been with these people in another life.”
In the 1970s, Masekela jammed with everyone from Herb Alpert to Fela Kuti. He lived all over Africa before eventually returning home to South Africa in 1991. Today, he mentors young South African artists. With over 30 albums to his credit, his latest, Revival, is on the Heads Up international label.
Hugh Masekela performs Sunday, April 23 at 7 p.m. on
the Meadow Stage.