Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Rest in Peace Bra Hugh Masekela (1939-2018)

Above a partial discography for Bra Hugh Masekela who, sadly, passed away earlier today. Sixty-Four years, a long career that began with a gift in 1954.

In November 1957, Father Trevor Huddleston published an amazing essay in Harper's Magazine outlining his involvement in the formation of the Huddleston Jazz Band at St. Peter's School in Johannesburg. This is one of the earliest media accounts featuring the young Hugh Masekela who is referred to as "Hugh" in the text. The Reverend discusses how he acquired Hugh's first trumpet from a second-hand music store in Johannesburg in 1954. Huddleston was subsequently also instrumental in securing another trumpet for Hugh, an FX Huller, as a gift from the legendary Louis Armstrong in 1956. Masekela made his first recordings using the "Satchmo" trumpet with the Father Huddleston Band that same year. The group then included Jonas Gwangwa, Zakes Moyake, George Makhene amongst others. Many thanks to Chris Albertyn for sharing this early 78 rpm recording of the band.

St. Peter’s, perhaps now somewhat forgotten, included a Secondary School, a church, a hostel (housing 40 boarders in the 1930s), and then later a theological college. This school was one of the first in South Africa where black students could receive a matriculation. Of course, this legendary missionary institution educated the likes of Oliver Tambo, Es’kia Mphahlele, Peter Abrahams, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Desmond Tutu and Kgalema Motlanthe to name but a few. Even the iconic painter, Gerard Sekoto, had a studio in this leafy complex, located in the suburb of Rosettenville, south of Johannesburg.

In 1909 Lady Selbourne, the wife of the then High Commissioner, established St. Agnes, a residential training school for black female domestic workers in central Johannesburg. The project was eventually transferred to an order of the High Anglican Church known as the Community of Resurrection and at some point the focus of the institution shifted to boys' education and was renamed St. Peter’s. In the 1920s Father Osmond Victor relocated the institution from central Johannesburg to what was then the relatively unpopulated suburb of Rosettenville and by 1925 the new campus was opened.

The Community of Resurrection (or CR), founded in England in 1892, by many accounts was a progressive religious order which Luli Callinicos in his book on Oliver Tambo affirms: “This consideration of the working class people, together with a broader, more intellectual and flexible view of the message of the Bible than was generally accepted at the time, marked members of the CR as socially radical”. As Brother Roger Castle, a housemaster at the school declared: “St.Peter’s is trying to produce an educated, self-disciplined, Christian youth, capable of becoming the leaders of the New Africa.” (Luli Callinicos, 2004)

Though viewed by some as paternalistic, the “CR was more sensitive to cultural identity than the vast majority of missionaries” and had an educational policy that was integrationist. For obvious reasons the CR had to operate prudently in the context of South Africa as to avoid controversy and so while their students were mostly black their staff was still quite multi-racial.

In 1954, a fourteen year old student was given his first musical instrument by the school’s superintendent. Who would know then what impact this action would have on a very young Hugh Masekela by the Father Trevor Huddleston. The trumpet was purchased for £15 from a second-hand music store in Johannesburg. Soon other instruments were acquired and Masekela along with his school friend, Jonas Gwangwa, on trombone, formed the legendary Father Huddleston Jazz Band.

Huddleston’s impact on South African history reached way beyond music. It was while he was at St. Peter’s that he wrote his famous memoir: Naught For Your Comfort, a blistering attack on apartheid South Africa that was eventually published in the UK in 1956 and became a best-seller.

St. Peter’s, under Huddleston, was by the early 1950s accepting 1500 students. But the apartheid government saw the school and many other similar missionaries as a threat and in 1953 imposed the Bantu Education Act forcing them to adopt its racially motivated inferior education policies or close. Huddleston was faced with an impossible dilemma, to educate black students poorly or not at all, and in a courageous decision he decided to close what he loved most dearly. In an article, Huddleston wrote this opinion justifying his actions:

“It is still happily possible to prefer death to dishonour. St. Peter’s will die. There is only one path open to the African: it is the path back to tribal culture and tradition: to ethnic groups; to the reserves; to anywhere other than the privileged places habited by the master race. It is because we can’t accept such principles that we are closing St. Peter’s...”

Huddleston’s active campaigning against the apartheid government had spread and his notoriety had escalated. In 1955 he was recalled by the Community of Resurrection and in March 1956 he was relocated first to the United States and then other countries. At his farewell concert at the Bantu Men’s Social Club (BMSC), enough funds were raised that Union Artists, the sponsors of the event, were able to buy Dorkay House. This permanent training and performance venue would soon become a crucible for South African Jazz.

Whilst in the United States, Huddleston met amongst many others Martin Luther King and Louis Armstrong. He mentioned the Huddleston Jazz Band and Masekela to Armstrong who was so moved that he gave him his FX Huller trumpet as a donation, which Huddleston subsequently sent back to Masekela in South Africa.

For a time, the theological college at St. Peter’s remained and drew student’s like Desmond Tutu who became an ordained minister there in 1961. Ultimately the government forced the college to close in 1963 and it relocated to the new ecumenical Federal Theological Seminary in Alice near fort Hare in the Eastern Cape.

Rest in Peace Bra Hugh Masekela.

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