Released in 2007, Masekela had been home long enough, after three decades in exile, to see the euphoria of the end of apartheid and freedom blighted by an AIDS pandemic, political corruption, and the social ills of violence and addiction. The song, not strictly jazz but rather infused with the rhythms of South African gospel and the harmonies of choral music, faced all the socio-economic problems the country still had to solve.

Hugh Masekela: South African jazz legend’s legacy lives on
Always the activist.
Image: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

While some still debate whether music should take a political stand, Masekela’s artistry and life were intrinsically political. From performing in Sophiatown, a diverse neighborhood flattened by the apartheid government, Masekela’s life in exile always harked back to South Africa. When he was finally able to return, his personal battles with addiction and then cancer also inspired his music and activism. His canon holds many examples of music that reflected real life around him, like the hugely popular Stimela, which documented the lives of migrant miners.

Like his idol Miles Davis, Masekela refused to be “yesterday’s guy,” and so his music continued to evolve, while he embraced young artists. Musically and literally, he hung out with kwaito, house and hip-hop, but jazz was always at the foundation. Through his genius, and the sheer force of his big personality, a trumpet solo lured new listeners to an old genre, when the genre risks becoming a “museum” of itself.

In jazz’s own homeland, the music is no longer the soundtrack of poor black ghettos, and is now often more likely the background music of elite clubs in Scandinavia. This exodus is unsurprising—musicians have to play where they can get paid. So save for artists like Robert Glasper trying to maintain a connection to that other fast gentrifying sound of the inner-city, hip hop, jazz has become far removed the lived experiences of its originators.

Hugh Masekela: South African jazz legend’s legacy lives on
A classic collaborator.
Image: AP Photo/Peter Winterbach

South Africa has a long, distinct history of jazz and a crop of new artists are ensuring that it remains relevant, but the music is not played as loudly in townships on a Sunday afternoon as it once was. That is perhaps what Masekela may be missed for most—his ability to make jazz a sound everyone could relate to.

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