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Hugh Masekela, 78; melded jazz from America with South African folk

Leon Neal/Pool/Associated Press/File

Mr. Masekela started playing the horn at 14 and quickly became an integral part of the 1950s jazz scene in Johannesburg.

By Harrison Smith Washington Post 

WASHINGTON — Hugh Masekela, a South African trumpeter and singer who formed a musical bridge between two continents, mixing American jazz with African folk in records that made him an early avatar of world music and a joyful standard-bearer of his country’s anti-apartheid movement, died Tuesday in Johannesburg. He was 78.

Mr. Masekela had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008. His family announced the death in a statement.

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Bra Hugh, as he was affectionately known in South Africa, played the flugelhorn and cornet, as well as the trumpet, and he drew from genres as disparate as disco and mbaqanga, a style of South African dance music. He explored the percussion-heavy sound of Afrobeat, collaborated with trumpeter Herb Alpert on a pair of jazz-funk records, performed with the London Symphony Orchestra, and scored a No. 1 hit with a pop instrumental — the sunny 1968 track ‘‘Grazing in the Grass.’’

With encouragement from the globally renowned South African-born protest singer Miriam Makeba, his wife in the mid-1960s, he also lent his baritone voice to songs in Zulu, Xhosa, and English. A political self-exile for three decades, he wrote the anti-apartheid protest anthem ‘‘Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)’’ (1987), inspired by a birthday letter he received from the imprisoned activist and future South African president.

Mr. Masekela had been a virtuosic jazz musician in South Africa before landing in New York in 1960, aspiring to be a bebop star. Trumpeter Miles Davis suggested that he instead ‘‘make a name’’ for himself by fusing his knowledge of jazz and African song. Otherwise, Davis warned, ‘‘You’ll be just like a thousand other jazz players; you’ll just be a statistic.’’

Mr. Masekela took the advice, defying record executives who said his sound was ‘‘too African.’’ He wryly mocked American listeners’ understanding of Africa, titling his third solo album ‘‘The Americanization of Ooga Booga’’ (1966). The record’s cover featured a barefoot Bra Hugh standing in the jungle, holding a briefcase and clad in a Brooks Brothers suit.

Not all listeners appreciated his new sound — the record ‘‘p--- off a lot of jazz purists,’’ he later told the Contra Costa Times. But Mr. Masekela remained a pop music fixture, in part through his work in rock-and-roll.

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A friend of Jimi Hendrix’s, he played trumpet on singles for the Byrds and performed at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, where his howling rendition of ‘‘Bajabula Bonke (The Healing Song)’’ was captured in an acclaimed documentary by D.A. Pennebaker.

‘‘The Healing Song,’’ a Swazi folk tune he learned from Makeba, initially served as a throwaway B-side for ‘‘Grazing.’’ The song featured a jangling cowbell, a soaring trumpet solo, and a melody written by actor-composer Philemon Hou. It climbed the charts a second time after the soul group Friends of Distinction added lyrics and recorded a cover version.

Mr. Masekela demonstrated a knack for writing jazz-infused pop songs, scoring hits with ‘‘The Boy’s Doin’ It’’ (1975), a funky dance number, and the disco single ‘‘Don’t Go Lose It Baby’’ (1984).

But his music never strayed far from politics. In concerts, Mr. Masekela discussed the meaning of songs such as ‘‘Stimela (Coal Train),’’ about displaced workers in Johannesburg, and ‘‘Soweto Blues,’’ about a 1976 massacre of black schoolchildren, which he often performed with Makeba.

‘‘I’m a parasite on the world’s conscience, to make them scratch sometimes,’’ he told Britain’s Guardian newspaper in 1990.

In the early 1980s, he moved to Botswana to start a mobile recording studio and school for African musicians. The school, near the border of South Africa, shuttered in 1985 after defense forces from the apartheid regime conducted a raid in the area, killing 15 people.

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With South African playwright Mbongeni Ngema, he composed and arranged the music for ‘‘Sarafina!,’’ which opened in New York in 1987 — transforming ‘‘the oppression of black townships,’’ New York Times theater critic Frank Rich wrote in a review, ‘‘into liberating singing and dancing that nearly raises the theater’s roof.’’

The show received five Tony Award nominations, including for best musical and best original score, and was adapted into a 1992 movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Makeba.

Mr. Masekela was by then in the midst of a late-career resurgence, buoyed by a collaboration with Paul Simon. Simon had recorded parts of the 1986 album ‘‘Graceland’’ in South Africa with local musicians, breaking a UN boycott and infuriating anti-apartheid groups who argued that he was implicitly condoning the white-only government.

Mr. Masekela, however, saw the album as an opportunity to broaden the appeal of South African music. He organized a group of South African musicians who performed in stadiums worldwide during Simon’s ‘‘Graceland’’ tour. With Makeba, guitarist Ray Phiri, and the choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, he played hits such as ‘‘You Can Call Me Al’’ alongside protest anthems and the Pan-African liberation song ‘‘God Bless Africa.’’

‘‘South Africa has become a spectator sport,’’ Mr. Masekela told the Los Angeles Daily News in 1987, dismissing ‘‘Graceland’’ critics who argued that South African musicians shouldn’t show support for Simon by playing with him on tour.

‘‘If these people are prevented from playing with us overseas,’’ he continued, ‘‘and they are prevented from playing over there in South Africa because of the color of their skin, then I don’t know what the people who want to help us are aiming at. It is as if they are saying, ‘We must deprive you in order to help you.’ ‘‘

He had married Makeba in 1964. ‘‘It was difficult, because I was a little bit more popular; men always like to know they’re in control,’’ she later told the Guardian, recalling the lead-up to their divorce in 1966.

‘‘We just decided, like he likes to say, ‘Let’s call it a draw.’’’ The couple continued performing together until her death in 2008.

Mr. Masekela’s marriages to singer Chris Calloway, daughter of American bandleader Cab Calloway, and to Jabu Mbatha also ended in divorce. In 1999, he married Ghanaian-born Elinam Cofie.

A younger sister, Barbara Masekela, served as Mandela’s chief of staff and later as South Africa’s ambassador to the United States. A son from a relationship, Selema ‘‘Sal’’ Masekela, works as a musician and journalist. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Masekela received a Grammy nomination for best world music album with his 2012 record ‘‘Jabulani’’ and appeared at a White House jazz gala in 2016.

‘‘Heritage restoration is my biggest obsession,’’ he told the San Francisco Classical Voice in 2011. ‘‘Our heritage has been condemned over the years by religion and colonization, and by Western media and culture, and unless African music is owned, produced, distributed, packaged and sold by Africans to Africans in Africa, you can’t say African music is growing.

“It’s very important to revive heritage and make it visible, so that when our grandchildren grow up, they won’t have to say, ‘We used to be Africans . . . long ago.’ ”