Called the "father of South African jazz," Hugh Masekela actually spanned several genres to create his own melting pot music. Perhaps best known for his 1968 instrumental hit "Grazing in the Grass," Masekela also became a pioneer in world fusion. The trumpet and flugelhorn player even dabbled in dance music, mixing Afro-pop with disco. One such example is "Afro Beat Blues," a previously unreleased 1975 track that finally surfaced on a 2006 compilation. Its slinky beat suits the dance floor as well as the radio, also paying tribute to the father of Afro-pop: Fela Kuti.
Growing up in South Africa, Masekela began singing and playing piano as a child, eventually settling on the trumpet at 14 years old. He quickly gained a solid reputation, joining several bands and serving as a studio musician. Fate intervened when he was in the orchestra for the musical King Kong; one of the stars of the cast was Miriam Makeba, who soon became his wife and sometime collaborator. By 1959 he had joined the Jazz Epistles, a short-lived but influential South African jazz group. Increasing violence and struggles against segregation forced Masekela and Makeba to flee Africa; musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, John Dankworth, and Harry Belafonte assisted the couple in immigrating to America.
Once settled, Masekela studied at the Royal Academy of Music, then the Manhattan School of Music. It was during this period that he developed his trademark jazz-funk-African pop hybrid; his career soared in 1968 with the release of "Grazing in the Grass." Despite massive success and sold-out tours, he turned toward a more ethnic sound in the 1970s, collaborating with Kuti. He also worked with American artists such as the Crusaders and Patti Austin, eventually recording an acclaimed album with Herb Alpert. In the 1980s Masekela enjoyed a renaissance; Paul Simon asked the now-legend to tour with him to support Graceland. Once Nelson Mandela was released from imprisonment in 1990, Masekela returned to South Africa and continued releasing jazz albums.
In 1966, Masekela and songwriter/producer Stewart Levine formed their own label, Chisa; after they scored a hit with "Grazing in the Grass," they forged a distribution deal with Motown. Between 1965-1975, Masekela collaborated with several artists to create pan-African tracks, although most of the tracks fell into obscurity until a 2006 compilation entitled The Chisa Years: 1965-1975 (Rare and Unreleased). "Afro Beat Blues" features Masekela and Ojah, a band consisting of artists from Nigeria and Ghana recruited during his 1973 African tour. Interesting, Kuti introduced the musicians to Masekela, which further emphasizes the Kuti connection. "Afro Beat Blues" sounds similar to the title track off Kuti's 1973 album Gentleman, an indication that the two pioneers influenced each other in forging a new genre.
The Masekela and Ojah-penned lyrics demonstrate pride in Africa and refer to slavery. "Coming from Nigeria / Down to Carn Afrise / Sail across the oceans," the vocalists chant. Arriving in London and Virginia, the protagonists find themselves "Working on the chain gang / Working on the road gang / Working in the kitchen / Picking cotton all day." The bass pops and the guitars scratch as the beat calls upon listeners to dance in defiance against oppression. The funk is reminiscent of George Clinton or even Sly and the Family Stone, but with a distinctly African flavor made more obvious by the proud roll call of various countries ("I'm going back to Ghana . . . Nigeria . . . Guinea . . . Marovia . . . I'm going to the homeplace").
Masekela's trumpet lines are not as prominent as in "Grazing in the Grass"; however, they provide just the right punctuation and soul the song requires. His trumpet sounds funky yet defiant, proud yet angry. Looser and grittier than his earlier work, "Afro Beat Blues" demonstrates how much his work evolved over time, seamlessly fusing various genres to create unique yet highly accessible material. Like Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa," "Afro Beat Blues" also injects jazz sensibilities into an otherwise danceable tune.
Upon learning of Masekela's January 23, 2018 death, critics and musicians published heartfelt tributes. Most articles emphasized "Grazing in the Grass"--understandable, since it remains his greatest hit. Yet his groundbreaking work led to the rapid development of Afro-pop and Afro-jazz, opening the door for such artists as Youssou D'Nour, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Johnny Clegg, and Zap Mama. Masekela helped introduce his culture and music to a wider audience, illustrating just how much African and other genres of music hold in common. Indeed, Simon (among many musicians) owes him a debt of gratitude.