Hugh Masekela: the legend through the ladies in his life

The South African jazz musician, who has died at 78, was surrounded by women who shared his political consciousness – his first wife and long-time collaborator, his sister, and his mentee

23 January 2018 // Nabeelah Shabbir

Jazz legend Ramapolo Hugh Masekela has died in Johannesburg at the age of 78.

The South African saxophonist and symbol of the anti-apartheid movement was born to a social worker mother and a health inspector father. Raised by his grandmother in Witbank, who ran a ‘shebeen’ (word to the wise: shebeens were illegal during apartheid), he quipped: “I didn’t turn out too badly for a boy raised in the shebeen”.

Masekela was married four times – to Miriam Makeba (more on her very soon), Chris Calloway, Jabu Mbatha, and Elinam Cofie, who he married in 1999 and stayed with for 18 years. He wrote the song ‘Ghana’ for Cofie, in tribute to her roots.

Much has been written about Masekela. Here’s an insight into who the man was through three influential women close to him.

Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela – Soweto Blues (Live 1988)

‘Mama Africa’ as Makeba was often called, was a singer and activist, a well-known symbol of anti-apartheid. She was a friend and collaborator, who encouraged  him to move to New York and study music. The two were married in 1964, after the release of his debut album, Trumpet Africaine. They divorced two years later. It was Masekela’s first marriage, and Makeba’s third.

Despite the end of their romantic involvement, the two greats of African song continued to collaborate. For example, Makeba starred in the 1992 movie Sarafina! with Whoopi Goldberg, based on a musical originally scored by Masekela. They continued to perform together until her death in 2008.

Barbara Masekela

Hugh was the eldest of four siblings. The other three, all girls. Barbara Masekela is a poet and activist. In her political roles, she was head of the African National Congress’s department of arts and culture, Nelson Mandela’s chief of staff, and a former South African ambassador to the US, France and Unesco. In the video above, no doubt thinking about her brother who went into exile in 1961  at 21 (after the Sharpeville Massacre), Masekela is in Amsterdam in 1982 and speaks of “people who are flung all over the world. We are refugees, exiles; we do not get an opportunity, in our own country, to show our talent.”

When Mandela was finally released from prison in 1990, Masekela called her brother in his Harlem townhouse and told him: “Hugh, go to the South African embassy and have them give you a visa in your Ghana passport. Come home, boy!”


A post shared by S O M I (@somimusic) on

Masekela, who was mentored by Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, would later himself mentor many great artists, including the American jazz singer, Somi. They met after a concert in New York in 2005, and collaborated on her song Enganjyani, from her third album, If the Rains Comes First.

Somi and Masekela also performed together at Carnegie Hall in 2014, for the 20th anniversary of South African democracy. Born to Ugandan and Rwandan parents, Somi later moved to Nigeria, where she released a new wave of protest songs, on the advice of her “Uncle” Hugh. In an interview in December 2017, she said: “It was really Uncle Hugh who gave me the courage and reminded me of the global citizenship of musicians… We should try to be of the world and tell stories of the world, for the world. Just be honest with our hearts and with those around us.”

Today, she posted this on her Instagram: “The last thing he wrote to me was, “Be strong.” I will try my best, but today I’m only full of heartache. Rest, Uncle Hugh. I love you and I thank you for your giant heart, your genius, and your courage. 🙏🏿♥️” She speaks for everyone touched by Masekela’s story and music. 

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