Today’s Doodle celebrates the world-renowned South African trumpeter, singer, bandleader, composer, and human rights advocate Hugh Masekela.
Born 80 years ago today in the coal-mining town of Witbank, South Africa, Masakela got his first horn at age 14. He went on to play with a wildly popular group known as the Jazz Epistles, the first all-black jazz band to record an album in South African history. However, within the year, its members were forced out of the country by the apartheid government.
At the age of 21, Masakela began a 30-year exile, traveling to New York where he enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music and dived into the city’s jazz scene, observing jazz giants like John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus, and Max Roach on a nightly basis. “You’re just going to be a statistic if you play jazz,” Miles Davis advised him, “but if you put in some of the stuff you remember from South Africa, you’ll be different from everybody.”
Encouraged by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, Masakela delved into his own unique influences to create his 1963 debut album, entitled Trumpet Africaine. By the late ’60s he moved to Los Angeles, and performed at the Monterey Pop Festival on a bill that included Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, and The Who. His 1968 single “Grazin’ in the Grass” hit #1 on the U.S. pop charts.
Masakela would go on to collaborate with the likes of Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, Paul Simon, and Stevie Wonder. In 1990, “Bra Hugh” returned to South Africa in time to see his song “Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)” come true. When the ANC leader was released from prison and elected South Africa’s first black president, Masakela’s music was the soundtrack.
Happy 80th birthday, Hugh Masekela!