Hugh Ramopolo Masekela was born on April 4, 1939, in Witbank, South Africa. He began singing and playing piano as a child. But at age 14, after seeing the film, YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN, where Kirk Douglas portrays American Jazz trumpeter, Bix Beiderbecke, he took up trumpet, given to the young Hugh by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, the anti-apartheid chaplain at St. Peters Secondary School.
Masekela had been greatly moved by the music he heard on the 78 RPM gramophone records of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Chick Webb, Ella Fitzgerald, Sy Oliver, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Jordan, The Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, Billie Holiday and Charlie Christian.
In his teens, he fell in love with Dizzy Gillespie, George Shearing, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham, Oscar Peterson, Bud Shank, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Stan Getz, Jackie & Roy Kral, June Christy Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Bud Powell and Mahalia Jackson.
After Huddleston asked the leader of the then Johannesburg "Native“ Municipal Brass Band, Uncle Sauda, to teach Hugh the rudiments of trumpet playing, the young boy quickly proceeded to master the instrument. Soon, some of Hugh's music-loving schoolmates also became interested in playing instruments, leading to the formation of the Huddleston Jazz Band, South Africa's very first youth orchestra. Hugh went on to play in other dance bands led by the great Zakes Nkosi, Ntemi Piliso, Elijah Nkwanyana and Kippie Moeketsi. By 1956, Hugh joined Alfred Herbert's African Jazz Revue.
Following a Manhattan Brothers tour of the country in 1958, Masekela wound up in the orchestra for the KING KONG musical written by Todd Matshikiza. KING KONG set South Africa's first record – breaking blockbuster theatrical success, touring the country for a sold-out year with Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers' Nathan Mdledle in the lead. The musical later went to London's West-End for two years.
At the end of 1959, Dollar Brand (later known as Abdullah Ibrahim), Kippie, Jonas, Makhaya Ntshoko, Johnny Gertze and Hugh formed the Jazz Epistles, the first African jazz group to record an LP and perform to record-breaking audiences in Johannesburg and Cape Town through late 1959 to early 1960.
Following the March 21, 1960, Sharpeville Massacre - where 69 peacefully protesting Africans were mercilessly mowed down and the government banned gatherings of ten or more people - and the increased brutality of the Apartheid state, Hugh finally left the country. Hugh was helped by Trevor Huddleston and international friends like Yehudi Menuhin and John Dankworth, who got him admitted into London´s Guildhall School of music.
Miriam Makeba, who was already enjoying major success in the United States, along with Harry Belafonte, Dizzy Gillespie and John Mehegan later helped Hugh obtain admission to the Manhattan School of Music in New York. It was during this time that Hugh had the opportunity to meet Louis Armstrong, who a few years earlier had sent the Huddleston Jazz Band a trumpet after the chaplain told the trumpet king about the band he had helped start back in South Africa.
Masekela began recording extensively with Miriam Makeba and can be heard adding his trumpet, singing and arranging talents to some of the singer's very best records. By 1963, the trumpeter had recorded his first solo album, TRUMPET AFRICAINE, and the following year, Makeba and Masekela were wed.
The trumpeter's breakthrough record was his engaging 1965 live performance, THE AMERICANIZATION OF OOGA BOOGA, which was produced by the late Tom Wilson, who had also produced Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkle's debut successes.
Masekela and Makeba divorced in 1966 and the trumpeter soon relocated to Los Angeles. In no time at all, the trumpeter began to take charge of his own career. He was attracting a sizable concert following on the West Coast and could be heard playing his brand of African influenced popular music alongside, or along with, emerging rock bands (The Byrds, Bob Marley).
He began recording for MCA's hip pop subsidiary, UNI Records, where he and business partner, producer Stewart Levine, released such signature Masekela performances as THE EMANCIPATION OF HUGH MASEKELA (1966), the wondrous African collection AFRICA '68 and, of course, Masekela's biggest hit ever, 1968's "Grazing In The Grass," from THE PROMISE OF A FUTURE.
By 1970, Masekela and Levine formed Chisa Records, a Motown subsidiary, which featured the recordings of Masekela as well as The Crusaders (it was Hugh who suggested they drop "Jazz" from their name), Letta Mbulu and Monk Montgomery. There were about seven releases in the Chisa series, including Hugh's own RECONSTRUCTION (1970) and HUGH MASEKELA AND THE UNION OF SOUTH AFRICA (1971), before the label folded.
Levine and Masekela moved their Chisa operation to Blue Thumb Records (1972-74), where Masekela began to seriously dig back into his African jazz heritage. Masekela moved to Guinea (where, at the time, Miriam Makeba was living), then Liberia and then on to Ghana shortly after recording (in London) the historical HOME IS WHERE THE MUSIC IS with the great African reed player, Dudu Pukwana.
In 1973, while in Nigeria, Masekela met Fela Kuti, who inspired the trumpeter to explore the "afro-beat" music that Kuti and Cameroonian sax player Manu DiBango were experiencing worldwide popularity with. Masekela loved what he heard and teamed with the Ghanaian band, Hedzoleh Soundz for a successful collaboration that lasted nearly five years. They first recorded an album that included the amazing "Languta" and, most successfully again in 1974 to produce the record I AM NOT AFRAID, featuring some of Hugh's most enduring compositions - "In the The Market Place," "African Secret Society" and "Coal Train (Stimela),“ numbers he still performs to enthusiastic audiences today.
By 1975, Hugh was lured back to "hit-making music" by the newly launched American label, Casablanca Records - which would later house some of the decade's best disco music (Masekela even recorded briefly as "Disco Kid" at the label's inception). Continuing to work with his African musical associates, notably Stanley Todd, Masekela created four albums that continued his supreme reign as a true world music emissary, easily engaging disco, pop and soul music with various African forms - notably on 1977's YOU TOLD YOUR MAMA NOT TO WORRY.
After a tour and two exceptional African jazz albums with Herb Albert, Hugh reunited with Miriam Makeba in 1980 to play a Christmas Day concert in Lesotho, where 75,000 people came to see them after they had been away from the region for 20 years.
In 1981, Hugh moved to Botswana, where he started the Botswana International School of Music with Dr. Khabi Mngoma. Several years later, Hugh had his record label, Britain's Jive Records, help him set up a mobile studio in Gaborone, where he recorded the great TECHNO-BUSH, which launched his first dance hit, "Don't Go Lose It Baby.“ In 1985, shortly after recording WAITING FOR THE RAIN, Masekela had to leave with his band Kalahari for England after the South African Defense Force massacred his friend George Phahle and his wife Lindi Phahle along with 14 other people in the pretext of raiding "communist terrorist camps" manned by South African Anti-Apartheid activists.
While in England, Hugh recorded one of his greatest works, TOMORROW (this writer's introduction to Hugh Masekela and still his favorite Masekela record!), which featured Hugh's next hit, "Bring Him Back Home" (a.k.a. "Mandela"). While there, Hugh also conceived, with playwright and songwriter Mbongeni Ngema, the mbaqaga musical SARAFINA, which found great success on Broadway in 1988. After touring with Paul Simon's GRACELAND - which included a number of prominent African musicians including Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba - Masekela finally was able to return home, following the unbanning of political parties and the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990.
In 1991, Masekela launched his first tour of South Africa, called Sekunjalo - This Is It! with the bands Sankomota and Bayete - happily caught on the joyous DVD release, HOMECOMING CONCERT. The extravagant four-month tour sold out throughout the country's major cities. Now, happily living in his South African home, Masekela signed in 1995 with Columbia Records, which reissued his 1982 album, HOME, as well as the recent recordings, BLACK TO THE FUTURE and SIXTY (both issued by the Shanachie label in the United States).
Masekela continues to maintain a very active tour schedule, spreading his musical message of peace, harmony and unity throughout the world. He can also be heard adding his distinctive voice and flugelhorn to many other world artists' recordings - from some of Bob Marley's earliest recordings to Buena Vista Social Club bassist Cachaito Lopez's 2001 solo record.