CityLife Arts

Young South African talent benefit from Hugh Masekela’s legacy as they leave for Manhattan School of Music

By Edward Tsumele

It is at this school where the late South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela polished his skills in music, from a theory point of view as well as  polishing his performance part of it, especially learning formally how to master both instruments and his voice . But it is also the school which gave him a hard time. It is one thing to practise and perform, but it is another to follow a formal approach to music learning. Masekela did well in all the subjects at the world famous Manhattan School of Music (MSM) in the US in the 60s. But there is one subject that gave him a hard time. He simply could not get it, and that is psychology. He openly speaks about his struggle with psychology as a subject during his study for a music degree at the Manhattan School of Music in his tell-all-biography titled Still Grazing.

But it is the same school that prepared a young Bra Hugh to conquer the world of music, becoming one of the most influential musicians from South Africa who performed at some of the most prestigious concerts, festivals and graced the stages once graced by the greatest of the great in global music. He simply took his music to another level.

Of course Bra Hugh is late now, but his legacy leaves on through young musicians who are now beneficiaries of his legacy as they take on the mammoth task of following on his footsteps, both literally and figuratively.

“The Hugh Masekela Heritage Foundation is proud to announce the arrival of the recipients of the Hugh Masekela Heritage Scholarship at the Manhattan School of Music for their new 2021 – 2022 academic year. This year’s new inductees are Simon Nyivana (alto saxophone, Class of 2025) and Lifa Arosi (piano, Class of 2025). The Hugh Masekela Heritage Scholarship provides a unique opportunity for talented South African musicians to study at New York’s prestigious Manhattan School of Music, one of the world’s leading conservatories. Championed by Yehudi Menuhin, Johnny Dankworth, Johnny Mehegan, Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba, it was at MSM that Bra Hugh would hone his unbridled creative energies, as he pursued his studies in Classical trumpet in the early 1960’s. It was also at MSM that he would form lifelong musical, and familial, bonds with fellow MSM students Stewart Levine, a world-renowned record producer, and opera singer turned jazz pianist Larry Willis (1942 – 2019),” the foundation said in a statement yesterday as they unveiled the names of the beneficiaries.

These South African students join a vibrant community of musicians and music scholars at the institution which has served as fertile ground for a bloom of notable musicians, which, along with Bra Hugh, includes Dave Grusin, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Larry Willis, Donald Byrd, Harry Connick, Jr. and Max Roach, to cherry pick a few.

“Established under the auspices of the Elma Music Foundation and the Manhattan School Of Music, the scholarship provides for the induction of two South African music scholars to pursue a four-year Bachelor of Music (BM) degree, with a goal of ensuring that the scholarship be awarded to South African students who have faced significant social, educational, cultural, or economic challenges, and who have a demonstrated interest in the advancement of music consistent with the legendary South African musician’s life-long advocacy, activism and embodiment of African identity, heritage, expression and musical excellence,” the foundation says.

“This scholarship not only honours (Bra Hugh’s) legacy, but also nurtures the next generation of South African musicians and upholds his vision to preserve and promote African heritage, culture and identity,” says Tarik Ward, Director, Music Programs, The ELMA Philanthropies.

While Hugh opted to leave MSM weeks before his graduation, to pursue his performance career, such is his widespread impact and influence on a global world of music that on April 4, 2019, on what would have been his 80th birthday, at a Jazz Foundation of America gala in New York honouring his life and legacy, the Manhattan School Of Music, the ELMA Music Foundation, and the Hugh Masekela Heritage Foundation announced the establishment of the Hugh Masekela Heritage Scholarship. 

“Hugh Masekela is one of MSM’s most distinguished alumni, and this is an apt extension of both his musical legacy and the important work that he did during his lifetime on social initiatives benefitting South Africans.,” says  MSM President James Gandre 

This year’s new inductees Simon Nyivana and Lifa Arosi are deserving recipients of the scholarships:

Saxophonist Simon Nyivana was raised solely by his grandmother and worked extra jobs to help pay for their living expenses. Eventually he was able to secure freelance performance gigs to make extra money.  A student of Johnny Mekoa’s Gauteng Music Academy, where his teacher, Khaya Mahlangu, another close musical compatriot of Hugh’s, spoke constantly about the legacy of Hugh, South African jazz music, and its contribution to the lives of South Africans. This impetus has always guided Simon’s artistic practice and inspired him to apply to MSM. In his own words, “As soon as I found out about the scholarship, I immediately resonated with the dream of bettering South African lives through art.”

“Wherever I would spot a piano I would squeeze in some time to practice.” True to his word, one of Lifa Arosi audition videos would be filmed on a piano in a busy shopping centre. Raised by a single mother, and without an instrument at home, he had to find places to practice around his community. Surrounded by musicians all his life, Lifa, despite his financial straits, spent self-motivated time transcribing records and playing with recordings. Enrolling at a local rock music camp after high school, he was admitted twice to Berklee College of Music, but was unable to afford the cost of attendance. Despite his lack of access to instruction, Lifa earned the highest score of any jazz piano applicant in the 2021 MSM applicant pool, making him one of the top applicants for the entire jazz department and an obvious choice for the Hugh Masekela Heritage Scholarship.

Along with returning students, Nhlanhla Mahlangu (alto saxophone, Class of 2023), Zeke Le Grange (tenor saxophone, Class of 2024), Kabelo Mokhatla (drums, Class of 2024), Zoe Molelekwa (piano, Class of 2024), and Danno Petersen (drums, Class of 2024), Simon and Lifa join a vibrant community of musicians and music scholars at the Manhattan School of Music.  “Not only is it a wonderful opportunity for the musicians and students who are benefitting from the scholarship and all the opportunity it affords, but it is a fitting tribute to Hugh Masekela, to his extensive, voracious and prodigious.

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