By Nick Romano
January 23, 2018 at 07:54 AM EST
Judith Burrows/Getty Images

Hugh Masekela, a South African trumpeter and anti-apartheid activist known as “the father of South African jazz,” died “peacefully” surrounded by his family on Tuesday in Johannesburg “after a protracted and courageous battle with prostate cancer.” He was 78.

“A loving father, brother, grandfather, and friend, our hearts beat with profound loss,” a statement from the family reads. “Hugh’s global and activist contribution to and participation in the areas of music, theatre, and the arts in general is contained in the minds and memory of millions across 6 continents and we are blessed and grateful to be part of a life and ever-expanding legacy of love, sharing, and vanguard creativity that spans the time and space of 6 decades. Rest in power, beloved, you are forever in our hearts.”

Born April 4, 1939 in Witbank, South Africa, Masekela grew up listening to the likes of Louis Armstrong and Clifford Brown. By high school, he received his first trumpet from Trevor Huddleston, an anti-apartheid advocate. “I was invaded by music from my infancy and it’s the only thing I’ve ever heard in my head besides the only other thing that obsesses me as much as music is the insanity of injustice,” Masekela said in a 2009 interview.

As his craft began to flourish, so did his activism. In 1960, under pressure from authorities for his anti-apartheid activities, he began what would be 30 years in exile from South Africa. When he reached London, his girlfriend at the time, singer Miriam Makeba, suggested he head to the U.S.

Masekela did just that and, with a scholarship from Mekeba and Harry Belafonte, attended the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. The musician would come to work with jazz greats — including Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis — all of whom suggested he develop his own style of jazz.

“[They] said, ‘Listen, if you’re going to play jazz, you’re just going to be a statistic like all of us. Why don’t you infuse some of the stuff from your home into your music, and then maybe you’ll come up with something that will interest everybody and that we can learn from,'” Mesekela told NPR in 2004. “And I guess I came up with some kind of a hybrid.”

His first album, Trumpet Africaine, came in 1962 and he’d go on to release hits like “Grazing in the Grass,” “Stimela (Coal Train),” and the anti-apartheid anthem “Mandela (Bring Him Back Home).”

In a statement released Tuesday, President Jacob Zuma of the Republic of South Africa described Masekela’s death as “an immeasurable loss to the music industry and to the country at large.”

“His contribution to the struggle for liberation will never be forgotten,” Zuma said.

“A baobab tree has fallen, the nation has lost a one of a kind musician with the passing of Jazz legend bra Hugh Masekela,” South Africa Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa tweeted. “We can safely say bra Hugh was one of the great architects of Afro-Jazz and he uplifted the soul of our nation through his timeless music.

“When I observe bra Hugh’s trumpet,” he continued, “it is not merely a musical instrument that I see, but a torch that illuminated the light of hope during our darkest hour, especially when he boldly sang ‘bring back Nelson Mandela, bring him back home to Soweto.'”

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