Grazing in the Grass
Some continent-hopping was necessary for Hugh Masekela to reach certain goals. Apartheid wasn't entirely the reason he left his home in South Africa, but it certainly provided motivation. His schooling began in England and continued in the U.S.A. while his reputation as a formidable trumpeter, flugehorn player and singer had grown considerably prior to a well-documented exhibiton on a Monterey, California stage. Then there was that one mega-hit single, "Grazing in the Grass." After an extremely long wait, a change in the political landscape enabled Masekela to return to his native land as a star performer who'd done his part to spread a message of unity and equality for all South Africans.
Witbank, located about 80 miles to the east of Johannesburg, was Hugh's birthplace; he practiced piano as a child but later gravitated towards brass instruments. About the time he entered his teens, he saw the American film Young Man With a Horn, starring Kirk Douglas as Bix Beiderbecke, the tragically short-lived musician of the 1920s who excelled at cornet and piano. Bishop Trevor Huddleston (an early and important opponent of the government-enforced apartheid segregation laws), whose diocese was in Sophiatown near Johannesburg, obtained a trumpet for Hugh, who within a few months began playing with street bands and in clubs around the city. Soon Hugh and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa became members of The Huddleston Jazz Band, a youth orchestra the British reverend had formed.
Masekela and Gwangwa started a band, The Merry Makers of Springs, after Huddleston returned to the U.K. in 1956. Hugh was a fan of South African singer Miriam Makeba (a star at the time for her recordings with The Manhattan Brothers, who'd even had a hit in the U.S. in 1956 with "Lovely Lies," featuring her vocals). The 1959 musical production of King Kong (based on the life of boxer Ezekiel Dlamini) opened in Johanessburg starring Makeba and Manhattan Brother Nathan Mdledle with 19-year-old Masekela as a member of the band and cast. Along with his buddy Jonas, Hugh played with the popular Jazz Epistles, which included pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, drummer Makaya Ntshoko, bassist Johnny Gertze and saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi (who emulated the style of American be-bop sax innovator Charlie Parker).
Masekela was profoundly affected by the Sharpeville massacre, a conflict between protestors and police in March 1960 that caused the deaths of 69 with an additional 200 wounded. With the help of Huddleston and others he made a move to England in 1961, after which he studied at London's Royal Academy of Music. The catch? He would be unable to return to his native country for many, many years. He managed to cross the Atlantic to New York and attended the Manhattan School of Music, where he met Harry Belafonte and was then introduced to Makeba, the great diva who was also unable to return to her homeland. The exile imposed by South Africa inadvertently granted free speech to courageous souls no longer inside the S.A. borders; Miriam had become an outspoken critic of her nation's cruel segregation laws. Hugh followed suit.
Frequenting N.Y. jazz clubs, Hugh witnessed, up close, the genius of performers like trumpeters Dizzy and Miles, pianist Monk, bassist Mingus...you get the picture. He split his time between flugelhorn and trumpet, doing considerable experimentation with nonconventional effects that might annoy purists but would be more acceptable back in Africa. He began making records in New York for the Chicago-based Mercury label. Trumpet Africaine, released in 1962, included "Satisfying Song," written and previously recorded by Makeba, and it was issued as a single in early '63. The following year Hugh married the seven-years-older and already-twice-married Miriam; the union lasted only two years, but the ever-so-brief lovebirds worked together a number of times afterwards.
You might call the years between 1966 and '69 his pop music phase, if only because he had quite a few records out during that time as sales gradually rose to stellar levels. Grrr, a Mercury LP, and his first effort for MGM, The Americanization of Ooga Booga (its title spoofing the way American movies seemed to imitate African dialects), appeared in 1966. Later in the year a series of pop covers commenced ("Along Comes Mary," "California Dreamin'" and a few Beatles songs) in an obvious attempt to score a hit single (most likely under pressure from MGM bosses). In early '67 he debuted his own label, CHISA, as a sideline (back home, the word stands for the Committee for Health in Southern Africa), with "Chisa," the first in an off-and-on series of jazz works, many rooted in African rhythms not necessarily conforming to pop music trends. Around that time, hitmaking band and fans The Byrds requested some help in the studio with a song they recorded using an African-inspired rhythm; Masekela's uncredited trumpet work on their single "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" gave it a degree of authenticity and was the first top 40 hit to feature the jazzman.
In June of '67 Hugh performed at the Monterey International Pop Festival, which starred rock music's elite (Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Hendrix and more than two dozen others...the Byrds were there!); Eric Burdon and the Animals performed at the event and as a result Burdon wrote "Monterey," a hit late in the year that name-checked several of the event's artists and included the line '...Hugh Masekela's music was black as night.' At the same time, Masekela was on the singles charts for the first time with, of all things, an instrumental version of The 5th Dimension's summer hit "Up - Up and Away."
The big one, released just after Masekela turned 29, was "Grazing in the Grass." Written by Philemon Hou, an actor, songwriter and singer from South Africa who'd previously spent time teaching drama at a Monrovia, Liberia university, Hugh's was the first recorded version. Coming in the midst of an instrumental revival in '68, the single hit number one that July and anchored his top-selling album The Promise of a Future. Other superb chart singles followed: "Puffin' on Down the Track" (composed by Lemmy "Special" Mabaso, who'd performed with his penny-whistle-playing group The Alexandra Junior Bright Boys in the '59 King Kong stage musical) and Masekela's own "Riot" in early '69, a great, laid-back track at odds with its title. Right around that time, a vocal version of "Grazing in the Grass" by The Friends of Distinction (group member Harry Elston penned the lyrics) came on like gangbusters...as with Hugh's instrumental, it was a million seller.
Suddenly very familiar on the worldwide stage, Hugh took advantage by doing concerts across the globe with an everchanging assemblage of guest musicians, well-known and up-and-coming. He made more records for his Chisa label and occasional mainstream companies; in 1978 he and Herb Alpert (whose "This Guy's in Love With You" had been knocked off number one by "Grazing in the Grass" ten years before) made an album together with "Skokiaan" (written in the early '50s by Rhodesian August Msarurgwa) as the lead track. "Don't Go Lose it Baby" was a minor hit for Hugh on the Jive Afrika label in 1984. He then toured with ex-wife Miriam Makeba as well as Paul Simon, who performed with African musicians following his success with the 1986 album Graceland. Apartheid laws were finally eliminated in 1991 after the release from prison of Nelson Mandela (in 1994 he was elected President of South Africa). After 30 years in exile, Hugh Masekela was able to return to his homeland.