Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpeter and unlikely pop star who received a shout-out from Eric Burdon & the Animals in their 1967 rock opus “Monterey,” has died.
The legendary musician, who became recognized as the Father of South African Jazz after scoring a No. 1 U.S. pop hit in 1968 with the instrumental “Grazing in the Grass,” died early this morning in Johannesburg of prostate cancer. He was 78.
Masekela was already on a star trajectory before he delivered his signature track, the megahit “Grazing in the Grass,” which sold 4 million copies. By that time he had already notched a minor U.S. hit the previous year with his cover of “Up, Up and Away” and had become recognized as a music pioneer in his native country through his work in the late 1950s with the bebop group the Jazz Epistles.
Masekela performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 — a performance that was referenced when Eric Burdon sang the line, “Hugh Masekela’s music was black as night,” in the Animals hit “Monterey” later that year.
“In the 1970s and ’80s, he collaborated with musicians across sub-Saharan Africa, constantly expanding his style to accommodate a range of traditions,” The New York Times notes. “In 1986, Mr. Masekela founded the Botswana International School of Music, a nonprofit organization aimed at educating young African musicians. The next year, he played with Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the ‘Graceland’ tour, which was not allowed in South Africa but made stops in nearby countries. On that tour, Mr. Masekela often performed ‘Mandela (Bring Him Back Home),’ a hit song demanding justice for Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned on Robben Island at the time.”
Masekela spent the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s living outside South Africa and battling the suppression of Apartheid through his music — including writing the 1977 Miriam Makeba protest song “Soweto Blues,” about the 1976 Soweto uprising. He moved back to his native country in 1990, the year Mandela was released from prison.
“In 2010, Mr. Masekela was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in gold, South Africa’s highest medal of honor,” The Times reports. “Since 2014, Soweto has been the site of an annual Hugh Masekela Heritage Festival, with the stated aim ‘to restore our South African heritage and to uplift the local artisans of Soweto.’”