One of the disadvantages of being immersed in a society that obsesses over pop culture is that you get a rather myopic scope of perception. Thus most associate Hugh Masekela with his Grammy-nominated hit single, “Grazing in the Grass,” which sold more than four million copies in 1968 and have been covered by others more time than one can count.
The legendary South African trumpeter Masekela returns to Pittsburgh a few days shy of his 75th birthday for a performance at the New Hazlett Theatre for a 7 p.m. Sunday, March 30, performance.
An innovator in the world music and jazz scenes, Masekela is also a renowned performer, composer and activist who was integral to Paul Simon’s Graceland tour, which introduced African music to a wider public.
But how many of you know that he played the trumpet solo on The Byrds “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star?” Among the many artists who have recorded or collaborated with Masekela are Miriam Makeba, Dizzy Gillespie, Harry Belafonte, Herb Alpert and Fela Kuti. He has provided music for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and co-created the hit Broadway show Sarafina, which brought South African music into theaters around the globe; Masekela was nominated for Broadway’s 1988 Tony Award as Best Score (Musical), with music and lyrics collaborator Mbongeni Ngema, for “Sarafina!”
Masekela is an activist. His song, “Soweto Blues”, sung by his former wife, Miriam Makeba, is a blues/jazz piece that mourns the carnage of the Soweto riots in 1976. In 1987 he had a hit single with “Bring Him Back Home,” which became an anthem for the movement to free Nelson Mandela.
In 1960, at the age of 21 he left South Africa to begin what would be 30 years in exile from the land of his birth. On arrival in New York Masekela enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music. This coincided with a golden era of jazz music and the young Masekela immersed himself in the New York jazz scene where nightly he watched greats like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach. Under the tutelage of Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, he was encouraged to develop his own unique style, feeding off African rather than American influences – his debut album, released in 1963, was entitled “Trumpet Africaine.”
In the late 1960s Hugh moved to Los Angeles in the heat of the ‘Summer of Love’, where he was befriended by hippie icons like David Crosby, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. In 1967 Hugh performed at the Monterey Pop Festival alongside Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, The Who and Jimi Hendrix.
His subsequent solo career has spanned 5 decades, during which time he has released more than 40 albums (and been featured on countless more).
In 1990 Hugh returned home, following the unbanning of the ANC and the release of Nelson Mandela – an event anticipated in Hugh’s anti-apartheid anthem “Bring Home Nelson Mandela” (1986) which had been a rallying cry around the world.
In 2004 Masekela published his compelling autobiography, “Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela” (co-authored with D. Michael Cheers). In 2010, President Zuma honoured him with the highest order in South Africa: The Order of Ikhamanga.
Tickets for the 7 p.m performance of Hugh Masekela are available online at http://www.showclix.com/ and at Dorsey’s Record Shop in Homewood and Stedeford’s in the North Side.