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Hugh Masekela’s last trumpet blows

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The world is mourning legendary South African trumpeter, composer and singer, Hugh Masekela, who died yesterday.

Best known for such songs like ‘Grazing in the Grass,’ ‘Stimela’ and ‘Bring Him Back Home,’ Masekela died at the age of 78 after a battle with prostate cancer.

Better known as ‘Bra Hugh’ he was considered the ‘Father of South African jazz.

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His death is a big blow to the world, to the African continent, South Africa and Malawi, as the artist worked for years with Malawi’s guitarists John Longwe and Erik Paliani.

By working with guitarists from Malawi, Masekela showed that Malawi has talent.

“Hugh Masekela was no ordinary musician. Working with him taught me a lot and apart from working with other acts, he magnified my music,” Paliani said yesterday.

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Paliani worked with Masekela for close to five years as a musical director and producer and toured with him.

“I left Acacias Band for South Africa to upgrade myself and the artists I actually wanted to meet included the late Ray Phiri and Hugh Masekela. I met the others but then I now started praying to meet Bra Hugh,” Paliani explained.

He said it took him eight years before he could meet him.

“I actually met him in a lift in Sun City and he actually told me that he had wanted to meet me. It was actually a slow take off. He actually told me he liked the way I was doing my stuff until we started working and touring together and then went on to produce the album Phola,” Paliani said.

He said Masekela toured with him and connected him to experienced musicians as well as gave him a chance to tour the world.

“I am sad he is no more. But having learnt a lot from him we need to carry on with his dream. It ‘s something I already started doing, playing some of his songs and I am also planning to re-record one or two of his songs, giving it a different feel,” he said.

Apart from Masekela, Paliani is best known for his work with Zamajobe Sithole and guitarist Lee Ritenour.

“As I said John Longwe is the first Malawian to work with Bra Hugh. He worked with him for over 20 years and I am the second,” he said.

Veteran musician Wyndham Chechamba also described Masekela as a great musician and that his death was a huge loss to the world.

“He was a great musician and no-one can dispute that. I had time to meet with him face to face when he came to Malawi and it was through John Longwe, who we used to play together,” Chechamba said.

Soldier Lucius Banda said Bra Hugh was the remaining of the last musical pillars of Africa.

“Bra Hugh represented African music; he was among the icons of African music. It’s a loss to African music and much as he accomplished a lot, we still needed his experience. It’s also a call up to young artists to fill up this vacuum,” Lucius said.

Lilongwe-based group Madalitso Band’s manager, Emmanuel Kamwenje, said it was said that the world had lost a talented musician.

Having watched Masekela live at Lilongwe Golf Club in 2007, Kamwenje recalled Masekela’s performance saying his general presentation of music was extraordinary.

“I enjoyed his performance. He actually could explain or give us a background of some songs. The song like ‘Stimela (meaning the train in one of South African languages) is about young men taken from other countries to work in South African mines including Malawians,” he said.

Kamwenje said his best songs were those; he recorded before the end of apartheid.

“He was singing about people’s struggles and also township life,” he said.

Youthful guitarist and singer Faith Mussa said he followed Masekela’s music especially after he realised that Paliani, one of the country’s versatile guitarists was playing for him.

“He had life in his music. Africa related to his music not only South Africans. I will always remember his Chichewa he did at Lugano Festival in Italy. Mwanayu wakula, tiyeni naye ku dambwe,” Mussa said.

Professor Felix Mnthali posted on his Facebook page that among the few famous sons of Africa with whom it has been his honour to rub shoulders with was Masekela.

“I will miss him. We first met in the 80s on a plane travelling from Harare, Zimbabwe to Gaborone, Botswana. He told me his sister was ‘in the movement.’ I remembered that sister as she and a younger sibling had been my mates at Pius XII College (National University of Lesotho) in the early 60s,” Mnthali said.

He said they later were both guests of the late Professor Mbulelo Mzamane at the University of Fort Hare and later in Swaziland.

“In all these meetings I was struck by Hugh’s simplicity and cheerfulness. He would entertain us all with his singing which accompanied his horn. His jokes were infectious and I can hear his laughter as I write this. His autobiography is remarkable for its candid narrative. Fare well, great musician, great son of Africa,” Mnthali said.

Grammy award-winning Beninese singer-songwriter and activist, Angelique Kidjo wrote on twitter:

“Today I lost a friend. Hugh Masekela was a pioneer. He was one of the first musicians to spread African music all over the world. But most of all he was funny, generous and most of all a beautiful soul.”

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta also twitted:

“The world has today lost a Legend. Hugh Masekela, gave us many songs, a reason to dance to jazz, and combined that with a trumpet, not only to connect us to entertainment but also to give South Africa a liberating and powerful voice against Apartheid.”

Several other people also twitted with some saying that the Baobab tree had fallen.

The BBC quoted his family in a statement that Masekela had “passed peacefully” in Johannesburg “after a protracted and courageous battle with prostate cancer”.

Masekela gained global recognition with his distinctive Afro-Jazz sound and hits such as ‘Soweto Blues’.

The 1977 song became synonymous with the anti-apartheid movement.

In a statement, South African President Jacob Zuma said Masekela’s death was “an immeasurable loss to the music industry and to the country at large”.

Zuma continued: “His contribution to the struggle for liberation will never be forgotten.”

The trumpeter, who was born on April 4, 1939 also had a number 1 US pop hit in 1968 with his version of ‘Grazing in the Grass’.

The BBC quoted a statement from Masekela’s family describing him as “a loving father, brother, grandfather and friend” who would be “forever in our hearts”.

The family added:

“Hugh’s global and activist contribution to and participation in the areas of music, theatre and the arts in general is contained in the minds and memory of millions across six continents.”

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