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In the United States, South African jazz horn player Hugh Masekela is best known for his hit single “Grazing in the Grass,” though in his home country his music came to be identified with the struggle against the apartheid system. Born in Witbank township in 1939, Masekela played piano and sang from an early age and was primarily raised by his grandmother. After he saw the 1950 film Young Man With a Horn, Masekela became obsessed with the trumpet and had his first bought for him by British priest (and later archbishop) Trevor Huddleston, an anti-apartheid activist. He was taught how to play by Uncle Sauda, leader of the Johannesburg Native Municipal Brass Band, and became a founding member of the country’s first youth orchestra, the Huddleston Jazz Band. Louis Armstrong, a friend of Huddleston, was so impressed by the youth’s interest in music that he sent the young Masekela one of his trumpets.
In 1956, Masekela joined the African Jazz Revue, toured with the Manhattan Brothers, and returned to perform in the blockbuster musical version of King Kong. In 1959, Masekela formed the Jazz Epistles with other prominent South African musicians and toured through 1960, until the crackdown on public gatherings following the Sharpeville massacre indicated a more openly violent trend in the apartheid government. Masekela left the country, enrolled in London’s Guildhall School of Music in 1960, and then moved to the United States—where he studied at the Manhattan School of Music and befriended Harry Belafonte. Masekela had a series of hits in the United States through the 1960s but previous efforts were trumped by 1968’s “Grazing in the Grass,” which sold 4 million copies. In 1967 he appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival and in D. A. Pennebaker’s film of the event. In 1974, he helped to organize the Zaire 74 music festival in Kinshasa, which was intended to promote a boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Forman.
Masekela played in jazz groups and, in the 1980s, focused his energy on performing with African musicians. He toured with Paul Simon to promote Graceland and set up a mobile studio across the South African border in Botswana. He founded the Botswana International School of Music in 1985 and performed at its first annual festival. Though Masekela returned to South Africa after the fall of apartheid in the 1990s, he continued touring and collaborating with artists all over the globe. In 2010, Maseka and his son, who had never been to South Africa, were subjects of a documentary series produced by ESPN, Umlando—Through My Father’s Eyes, to coincide with that year’s soccer World Cup. Masekela died in Johannesburg in 2018 from prostate cancer.