How the South African trumpeter survived his outrageous lifestyle with his liver and brain functions still intact is as miraculous as the sounds his horn makes when he’s in his stride.
Though his debauchery warrants the tone of a confessional—at 17, “my addictions to alcohol and sex were well under way”—Masekela is too bright to leave it at that. He sets his hard-partying life against his growing consciousness of apartheid (he figured Boer women’s scowls simply expressed jealousy because “they had no rhythm, they couldn’t sing or dance, couldn’t play the drums and didn’t know how to laugh”) and his immersion in music at home and abroad. In 1942, three-year-old Hugh was already singing along with American big-band recordings, and when he heard Harry James’s trumpet work in the 1953 film Young Man with a Horn, his life’s course was set. In an unadorned, uninhibited voice, Masekela evokes music’s magical power “to sing our sorrow and illuminate our ecstasy” as he and other black South Africans suffered passbooks, the Bantu Education Act, the immorality laws, and apartheid’s assassins. When he arrived in New York City in 1960, the avant-garde jazz scene was on fire; Dizzy Gillespie sent him down to the Half Note to catch John Coltrane, one of the many Americans who inspired Masekela to create his own fusion sound. He married and divorced too many times to count, created brilliant music for Sarafina!, and toured with Paul Simon; he also became so addled by drugs that family, music, and friends fell away beneath him. On the political front, he reveals his disillusionment upon returning to post-apartheid South Africa and discovering that “we were a long way from freedom and justice”; black government didn’t necessarily equal a better life for Africans.
It would be an overstatement to say that Masekela found grace and redemption through the trumpet—as a bad boy, he wasn’t looking for that—but he sure gave a lot of pleasure.