top of page

The Hugh Masekela story

The kid who made it

I was scared to meet Hugh Masekela. He is big and famous. He has sold millions of records. He has important friends. He is the guy who left South Africa over 20 years ago – and made it.

We met Hugh Masekela at the Gaberone Club in Botswana last month. We sat at a table under a tree. Hugh ordered some beers for all of us. When the beers came, Hugh paid for them. The Learn and Teach photographer started taking pictures. “Hold it,” said Hugh. He took the beer bottles off the table and put them on the floor. “Okay, you can carry on. I don’t like giving these guys free ads.”

We all Iaughed. Then we started to speak. Hugh told us about his life. He spoke quickly. But his voice was gentle and friendly. He laughed a lot. After a few minutes, I wasn’t scared of Hugh Masekela anymore.

Hugh Masekela was born on the 4th April 1939 in Witbank a town 100 miles east of Johannesburg. He lived with his grandmother in Witbank. His parents lived and worked in Benoni. “My mother was a teacher. My father was a policeman, “says Hugh. “They both liked music. They had all the old, great jazz records.”

When Hugh was seven years old, he left his grandmother. He went to stay with his parents. His parents now lived in Springs. Hugh already loved music. He often walked around the house singing. His parents sent him to piano lessons. His teacher was an old man. Hugh called his teacher Madevu (The Beard).

The Masekelas did not stay in Springs for long. In 1948 they moved to Alexandra Township in Johannesburg. Hugh’s father was no longer a policeman. He was now a health inspector.

In Alexandra Hugh made lots of friends. He spoke and dressed like all the other kids. He played a good game of soccer. On the soccer field, they called him ‘slow poison’. In 1952 Hugh went to St. Peters School. Father Trevor Huddleston was the principal of the school. Hugh’s best friend was a kid called Stompie Manana. “Stompie and I were always in trouble, “says Hugh. “We broke all the rules. Sometimes we didn’t go to school. We went to town. In town we stole money. Eloff Street was full of madams with bags full of money!”

Father Huddleston called Hugh to his office. “I’m worried about you,” said Father Huddleston. “You are only 13 years old and you are already a tsotsi. What do you want to do with your life?”

“I don’t know,” Hugh answered. One day Stompie and Hugh missed school again. They went to see a movie. The movie was called ‘Young Man With A Horn’. The film was about a great trumpet player. Stompie and Hugh loved the movie.

Hugh went back to Father Huddleston’s office “I know what I want to do. I want to learn the trumpet.”

Father Huddleston went to a music shop and said “A kid at school wants to play the trumpet. Give me a trumpet otherwise the kid will come and steal it.” The shop gave Father Huddleston a trumpet. Hugh went for a few trumpet lessons. The first song Hugh learnt was ‘I’m in the mood for love.’

But Hugh and Stompie still did not study. “ I failed form two because I was naughty,” says Hugh “They told Stompie not to come back.”

Hugh started a band at school the next year. “Father Huddleston got another trumpet for my friend Knox,” says Hugh. “We found an old piano and some drums at the school. We played songs from people like Duke Ellington, Glen Miller and Count Basie. We also played some marabi music.”

In 1954 a big businessman from America visited South Africa. Father Huddleston went to see him and said “I’ve got a school band with no instruments. Can you give us a few instruments?”

“I’ll give you anything you want. I’ll buy you a whole band,” the American said.

“So the guy bought us a whole band,” says Hugh “All the kids who liked music joined the band. We called the band the Huddleston Jazz Band (HJB). We wore cowboy suits. Most of the kids in the band couldn’t play music. They had tin ears”

In 1955 the government closed St Peters. And the government told Father Huddleston to leave South Africa. “We gave Father Huddleston a big party,” says Hugh. “A lot of people played music at the party. We all loved Father Huddleston. He was a brave, sharp guy.”

Father Huddleston went to America on his way back to England. In America Father Huddleston met Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong. Father Huddleston told Satchmo about the kids back home. The story touched Satchmo’s heart. He sent Hugh a trumpet. “Satchmo’s trumpet was big news in South Africa,” says Hugh. “I met a lot of people after I got the trumpet. In the school holidays I even played with the Merry Makers. They were a big band on the East Rand.”

Hugh’s parents were not happy. They worried about Hugh. They wanted their son to study. They told their son to think about the future. They said Hugh couldn’t make a living from music.

Hugh went to the Holy Cross School to do matric. But he never finished. One night he wrote a note. His father found the note under Hugh’s pillow the next morning. In the note Hugh said, “It’s music what I’ll have.”

Hugh joined a music show. He stayed with the show for three years. He played with the show all over South Africa. He earned 15 pounds a week. Hugh then played for the Manhattan Brothers. He played with people like Kippie Moeketsi and Todd Matshikiza.

One day the group played in Cape Town. Todd went back to Johannesburg suddenly. The group needed a piano player. They found a young piano player. He played in a bioscope. They asked him to join them. His name was Dollar Brand.

Then Hugh and his friends played in a show called King Kong. They played in the show for 18 months. After the show finished, Hugh, Kippie and Jonas Gwangwa made a record with a guy from America.

Hugh then joined another band. He played with Kippie, Jonas, Dollar, Johnny Gertse and Makhaya Ntshoko. They called themselves the Jazz Epistles.“The Jazz Epistles were the hottest group around, “says Hugh. “We filled the halls and stadiums. Then Sharpville happened. And the government stopped all meetings with over 10 people.”

Hugh then got money to study in England. So Hugh packed his bags and left for England. On the plane a woman asked him, “Can I get you a drink?”

“I had never bought a drink before without breaking the law, “says Hugh. “I didn’t know what to do. Then I thought about an actor in the American movies. His name was Humphrey Bogart. So I said what he always said, “Give me a triple scotch on the rocks.”

The plane went to Salisbury, Nairobi, Khartoum and Rome. By the time Hugh got to England, he was very drunk. “I felt very strange in England, “says Hugh. “I never left my passport at home. Whenever I saw a policeman, I reached for my passport.” Hugh studied for a while in England. “I also worked as a band-boy,” says Hugh. “I carried instruments, I packed drums and bought the guys fish and chips.”

But Hugh wasn’t happy in England. “I hated England,” says Hugh. “People don’t talk there. On the bus they all sit and read newspapers.”

Hugh only stayed in England for five months. In September 1960 he went to America. Mirriam Makeba helped him go to America.

“Americans didn’t know about Africans in those days,” says Hugh. “They always asked me, ‘What do you eat?’ And I always answered, ‘People – but mostly missionary steaks and nuns buns’!”

Hugh stayed in America. He studied music there. He worked with great people like Mirriam Makeba, Caiphus Semenya, Harry Belafonte, Herb Alpert, Letta Mbuli and Herbie Hancock.

Many people helped Hugh. But Hugh worked hard. And he did well. He played at concerts. He made records. He played the music of Africa in America – and the Americans loved it.

Hugh visited Africa often since he left. He visited countries like Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana and Kenya. But he did not come back to Southern Africa for 20 years. He came back to play at a concert in Maseru in December 1980.

Now Hugh Masekela is back in Southern Africa. And he says he will stay. “I can’t come back to South Africa,” says Hugh. “I can’t come back until South Africa is free. But Botswana is like here. I will live in Botswana.”

The people of South Africa never forgot Hugh Masekela. They bought his records. They danced to his music. They waited for him to come back.

“The people of Africa have always helped me,” says Hugh. “They have always believed in me. Now I want to pay them back. I’ve come back to help the young musicians.”

Hugh Masekela is rich and famous. He is a big guy in America. But he never forget his people. His heart is still in Africa. He came back


If you would like to print or save this article as a PDF, press ctrl + p on your keyboard (cmd + p on mac).

bottom of page