Musician and anti-apartheid activist

Born: April 4, 1939;

Died: January 23, 2018

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HUGH Masekela, who has died aged 78, was a trumpeter, jazz musician, composer and activist who refused to accept international borders and was forced to live in exile from his home in South Africa for 30 years due to his outspoken stance against apartheid.

In a career that began in the 1950s and continued through to his most recent album, the appropriately named No Borders, released in 2016, Masekela became known and loved on every continent and collaborated with artists including his mentor, Harry Belafonte, his former wife Miriam Makeba, Marvin Gaye, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, the Byrds, and fellow trumpeter Herb Alpert.

Having lived in London, first the east and then the west coast of America and in numerous African countries in an itinerant lifestyle during his exile, he was proud to receive, on his return, the Order of Ikhamanga, the highest honour awarded to South African citizens who have excelled in the fields of arts, culture, literature, music, journalism or sport.

He was born in Witbank, a coal-mining settlement near Johannesburg. His father was a health inspector, who was also a sculptor, and his mother was a social worker and half-Scottish, hence the first name Hugh. All the family, including his three siblings, were politically aware and his sister Barbara went on to become head of the African National Congress’s department for arts and culture.

Music was all around the family but one particular event attracted Hugh to playing an instrument. At the age of four he was taken to a wedding and he was fascinated by the trumpet player in the band. Ten years later, while attending – albeit infrequently and disobediently – St Peter’s school for black children, he was given his first trumpet by the school priest, Trevor (later Archbishop) Huddleston, on the promise that this would stop his delinquent behaviour. It did. After initial “horrible noises” he practised for hours and so many other pupils wanted to follow suit that Huddleston formed a jazz band to accommodate them.

Huddleston later told a journalist in America about Masekela and the journalist relayed the story to Louis Armstrong, who sent one of his own trumpets to the budding young player. When Masekela and Armstrong eventually met, Armstrong joined Dizzy Gillespie in advising Masekela to develop his own style of African jazz.

Before that, however, Masekela formed the Jazz Epistles with the then Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) on piano and another former Huddleston Jazz Band player, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa. They recorded the first-ever album by a South African jazz band in 1959 before Brand left for Europe and Masekela joined the cast of the musical King Kong, which starred his future wife, Miriam Makeba.

By the time of the infamous Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, Makeba and Masekela’s vociferous opposition to apartheid was being noted by the authorities and following the banning of the ANC, Masekela left for London and then New York. He studied classical trumpet at Manhattan School of Music and listened to Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk in the New York jazz clubs. On Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie’s advice, his first album, Trumpet Africaine, released in 1962, celebrated his musical roots as well as his new surroundings and with Harry Belafonte’s promotion Masekela and Makeba became feted across America.

They married in 1964 but their marriage was short-lived and Masekela moved to California. There he embraced the rock and pop scene, had a minor hit with his version of Jimmy Webb’s Up, Up and Away in 1967 and featured alongside Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and the Who on the Monterey International Pop Festival. The following year Masekela scored a massive hit single with Grazing in the Grass, whose benign nature was at odds with his outspoken political comments and angry musical statements in support of Black Power and against the Vietnam War and the situation in South Africa.

In 1972, Masekela moved back to Africa, spending time in Guinea, where Miriam Makeba was living at the time with her new husband, the civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, before moving on to Zaire, Liberia and Ghana, hooking up with musicians along the way until he fetched up in Nigeria, where he met up with rebel musician Fela Kuti. Following the Soweto Uprising in 1976, Masekela and Makeba released the protest song Soweto Blues and in 1986 Masekela, having achieved a minor dance hit with Don’t Go Lose It Baby from his 1984 album, Techno-Bush, devoted Bring Him Back Home to Nelson Mandela and the campaign to have Mandela released from prison.

Masekela was still exiled from South Africa when Paul Simon recorded his Graceland album, working with musicians in Johannesburg and incorporating indigenous rhythms. Despite opposition to Simon breaking a UN cultural boycott, the album was a massive success and Masekela and Makeba joined the resulting world tour, telling protestors that Simon was giving South African music and musicians global exposure.

Eventually, in 1990, with Nelson Mandela finally free again, Masekela returned to South Africa and enjoyed celebrity status while working on numerous musical projects. He joined Mandela on his 1996 state visit to London and ended up dancing in the royal box when Mandela met the queen. In 2010 he played to a global audience of millions when he opened the concert that marked the opening of the World Cup and in 2012 he re-joined Simon for the Graceland 25th anniversary world tour. Later that same year he conceived and co-wrote the jazz musical Songs of Migration, which explored the music of South Africa, Nigeria and the American South and toured the world.

His personal life was as eventful as his public one. His career suffered for long periods through unreliability due to alcohol and cocaine addiction. After he and Makeba divorced, he married Chris Calloway, daughter of jazz band leader Cab Calloway. This also ended in divorce, as did two subsequent marriages. He is survived by his son, Sal, daughter, Pula Twala, and sisters Elaine and Barbara.

ROB ADAMS