Strong and Together in Song

Published 9 years ago

Two days before last year’s Grammy Awards, the prolific South African jazz musician and activist, Hugh Masekela, arrived in Los Angeles. He had been nominated in the ‘Best World Music Album’ category for Jabulani, a collection of South African wedding songs, some of which are more than a century old.

Although it was the second Grammy nomination of his long career—his song Grazing in the Grass was up for best contemporary pop instrumental in 1969—Masekela didn’t seem too preoccupied with the possibility of winning.

“Awards are not really my thing,” he says with a shrug.


At the time, the 75-year-old artist was content to catch up with his son Sal Masekela, who is best known as a TV host for ESPN’s X Games coverage and the E! Entertainment celebrity gossip show, The Daily 10.

Sal’s latest endeavor was an album of his own, The Sound of Alekesam, a blend of hip-hop, jazz and R&B that wafts over the speakers at his production company office, where he and his father had just completed their first ever photo shoot together.

“The album sounds good, Selema,” Hugh says, slapping his son on the back and calling him by his full name, as he always does.

It’s no small compliment from a musician who has released more than 40 albums and performed with Dizzy Gillespie, The Byrds, Fela Kuti, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Miriam Makeba.


Sal smiles sheepishly and says, “Thanks, man.”

Sal is 42, and over the course of their relationship there has at times been distance between the two men, both physical and emotional. It was not always easy having a father who was constantly touring, who lived in exile from his homeland for 30 years while speaking out against South Africa’s apartheid, or who once struggled with substance addiction. But their bond is a strong one.

“The great thing about my relationship with my dad is that we’ve always been able to pick up where we left off. We’re two guys running on one track with a baton, and we’ve each sometimes had to go in different ways, but we’re there to hand it to each other,” says Sal.


Today, both father and son find themselves looking forward, while also embracing their roots.

Hugh is committed to restoring African heritage. Born in the town of Witbank, east of Johannesburg, he has always drawn inspiration from the music of his country.

“The music I make, I don’t call it my music. It is based on my township and indigenous rural roots in South Africa. That’s what brought me fame all over the world,” he says.

Hugh first started playing the piano when he was five years old.


“I didn’t go into it for notoriety or fame. I just went into music because I love it,” he says.

At the age of 14, he was given his first trumpet by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, the late British anti-apartheid activist. Hugh began to develop his signature sound in the late 1950s, melding jazz with African influences.

He left South Africa in 1960, aged 21, beginning a 30-year exile. Settling in New York during a golden age of jazz, he attended the Manhattan School of Music and watched legends like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Louis Armstrong firsthand. His first album, Trumpet Africaine, was released in 1963.

In the ensuing decades, Hugh became an international star and an outspoken political voice with songs such as Stimela, Soweto Blues and Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela), which became an anti-apartheid anthem.


Sal was born in 1971 and, like his father, grew up immersed in music.

“My earliest memories of my father are being with him in jazz clubs. Hanging out in studios and being around music and around artists that talked about the world,” he says.

As Hugh divided his time between the United States (US) and Africa, living in Zaire, Liberia and Nigeria, Sal was raised by his mother, Jessie Lapierre, a Haitian immigrant, and his stepfather, Manny Gonzalez.

“I’m a unique first-generation American. I borrow from all of it. I’m lucky in that I get to take the influences and the principles of my different cultures and shape them into who I am as a person,” says Sal.


As a young man, Sal marched to the beat of his own drum. Upon moving from New York to California in 1988, he took up surfing, which sparked his love of action sports. One of the tracks on his album alludes to his individualistic nature and his love of the ocean, as he sings: “I’m a black cowboy riding a dolphin”.

In 1990, after the release of Nelson Mandela, Sal joined his father on his homecoming tour in South Africa.

“It was really crazy. While Mandela had been released, apartheid itself was having a very hard time breaking down. I think people were starting to see that it was going to take a long time to put this car in reverse. There was a lot of violence and it was a tense time,” says Sal.

“It was very fulfilling for me to be able to bring him home and for him to see the other side of his heritage,” Hugh says.

In 2010, the two traveled throughout South Africa during the Fifa World Cup for ESPN’s 10-part video series titled ‘Umlando—Through My Father’s Eyes’.

“I took him to the poorest places in the country, to see the other side of it, and also the beauty of the country. It was just wonderful to watch him take it all in,” says Hugh.

For Sal, it was a different South Africa than the one he had visited previously.

“You could pull up at a red light and there’d be a car full of white people at the red light next to your car, and they might wave to you or smile. That might sound minute but the texture of the way people dealt with each other was different—especially among the younger generation,” he says.

The experience gave him immense hope for what the next 20 or 30 years could be like in South Africa.

When it comes to their own futures and those of Africa, Hugh and Sal are both ambitious and optimistic.

In the past year, Hugh has been busy performing in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the US, Canada, Europe and throughout Africa. He also spent five weeks in Trinidad and Tobago working on an album with Siparia Deltones, a steel band. The album is expected this year on Hugh’s record label, House of Masekela.

Sal has been equally busy covering surfing and mountain biking, writing new songs, and developing Art of Craft, a line of limited-edition T-shirts. The shirts are created in collaboration with artisans and a portion of the proceeds is donated to a charity of each subject’s choosing. Hugh was the first artist to be featured.

Sal was due to return to South Africa in March to ride in the Cape Epic, an 800-kilometer mountain bike. He also had plans to work with the South African surfer Jordy Smith, a good friend who does charity work in Durban to promote the sport to youth.

“I’ve always said that the first surfer of color that will have a real shot at the World Tour is going to come from South Africa,” Sal says during a recent phone call.

His optimism echoed that of his father during their earlier conversation before the Grammys.

“There is no society that has as much diversity and wealth and a reservoir of music and other things than Africa. We’re looking at Africa in its embryonic stage as far as I’m concerned,” says Hugh.

Hugh did not win the Grammy but when you are a legend, who cares?   FL