Hugh Masekela, the “father of South African jazz,” has been honored with a Google Doodle on what would have been his 80th birthday today. The musician, singer, composer, and human rights advocate died of prostate cancer in January 2018, but his songs continue to live on around the world. Here are five facts you might not know about this jazz icon.
Hugh Masekela played Louis Armstrong's old trumpet.
Masekela started playing the piano at age 6, but discovered his true calling as a teen. At 14, he decided to take up the trumpet after watching the 1950 film Young Man with a Horn, starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, and Doris Day. Three years later, Masekela ended up with Louis Armstrong’s old trumpet after the iconic musician heard about a youth band in South Africa in need of instruments. Masekela said the instrument made him feel as if he had a “spiritual connection” with jazz musicians in America.
Hugh Masekela was part of the first all-black jazz band to record an album in South Africa.
Masekela and pianist Dollar Brand founded their band, The Jazz Epistles, in 1959. Together, they tore down barriers by recording an album, playing at white clubs, and organizing a national concert tour—all things that were unheard of at the time for black artists.
Hugh Masekela was essentially exiled.
Masekela left South Africa at the age of 21 after his tour with The Jazz Epistles was canceled in the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre, which ushered in new laws prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people. He studied music in England and then continued on to New York, where he enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music. Masekela planned to return to his home country after graduation, but was unable to do so because of the government's apartheid policies. “By then [Nelson] Mandela had been sentenced to life imprisonment,” Masekela told CNN in 2009. “So I stayed 26 years longer than I planned to."
In 1968, one of Hugh Masekela's songs climbed to the top of U.S. pop charts.
Masekela’s single "Grazing in the Grass" was the number one Billboard song in 1968. At one point, his song was more popular than “Hello, I Love You” by The Doors, “Dream a Little Dream of Me” by Mama Cass, and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones.
Hugh Masekela's music was the soundtrack to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.
In 1987, Masekela performed a protest song he wrote titled “Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela).” The opening lines are: “Bring back Nelson Mandela, bring him back home to Soweto. We want to see him walking down the streets of South Africa, tomorrow.” His wish came true—albeit three years later—when Mandela was finally released from prison, and later elected president.