Insight: Style

A baobab has fallen: Dorothy Masuka was a revolutionary artist

Dorothy Masuka, one of Africa's greatest composers, carved her name in both musical and political history

03 March 2019 - 00:00 By BONGANI MADONDO

When African troubadour Dorothy Masuka died, minister of arts and culture Nathi Mthethwa said: "A baobab has fallen." Masuka, who had cancer, died last Sunday at the age of 83, a year after suffering a stroke.
The stroke left her partly paralysed, but those familiar with her resolve - her stubborn will to do things for herself, from banking to grocery shopping - her upbeat nature, her toothy smile and the incandescent light and love in those round, bright eyes - assumed she'd pull through, that she'd be up like the sunrise once again to crack jokes or admonish people about their lack of knowledge of Africa.
SA short-changed Masuka. In latter years she was profiled as one of that glorious Sophiatown band of troubadours we love to refer to as "the golden oldies". She might have been given the odd show here and there, where she charmed audiences with the lush tenor that seemed to issue out of her nasal passages. She might also have performed a gig here and there where government dignitaries, not always dignified, promised love and support - something artists know only too well they should not expect to actually materialise.
She was aware of the economic juggernaut of pop culture. And yet Dotty's persona, unlike that of her old friend Miriam Makeba, resisted the star-making process.
She was one of the music exiles who began returning to SA from the early 1990s onwards, a movement inspired in no small measure by Hugh Masekela's Sekunjalo homecoming national tour, but it was not clear how she wished to position herself.
For a minute that stretched for five years, SA, specifically black urban SA, experienced a galvanising gust of joie de vivre, a singular flush of African pride and renewal not seen since the mid-1970s Black Consciousness era. As per the folk bard, Bobby Zimmerman, the times, baby, were a-changing.
That brief stint was book-ended at one side by Nelson Mandela's altruistic quest for social cohesion, "the Rainbow Nation", and at the other by his successor's ascension to the republic's hot throne with a canny shot at posterity delivered via an epic poem: I Am an African.
It was also the era in which the nascent township DIY music known as kwaito was actively seeking a new and much more rooted ID. In its lyrics, stage costuming and public pose, an ideal of Africa was calling.
The youth began recycling 1940s, 1950s and 1960s black cultural iconography. Artists such as Sophie Mgcina and kwela vanguards Aaron "Big Voice Jack" Lerole and Lemmy "Special" Mabaso inspired a cohort of pre-millennial adherents. Outchea on the streets, fashion houses Stoned Cherrie and Sun Goddess and their plethora of seshoeshoe imitators symbolised retro black power chic.
The upside to raiding the rural and urban archive was that many forgotten artists received trickles of respect and, hopefully, their financial dues.
Masuka, however, eschewed the retrofitted cool and rediscovered relevance on offer. She stepped out in public with a cropped silver wig, not the requisite Afro-do. She had no distinct dress style you could copy and hawk over the counter. She did not give a speech at the UN that you could download off the net and instashare with your fans.
Masuka was not the first name on people's tongues when the youth and the electronic media went into cultural spasms about "revolutionary forefathers and foremothers". Unlike with, say, the new "African Princess" Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Masuka's 1950s hits such as Nontsokolo, Let Me Go, Lover, Khauleza, Kulala, Nginje and Phata Phata (reprised by Makeba as Pata Pata) were buried in the Radio Bantu section of the SABC's archives.
Unlike Brenda Fassie and some others, Masuka never lay in her own vomit; she was never known for booze and narcotics addictions. Unlike some of her peers, who were occasionally dragged from their poverty to reprise the "glory days" of township jive for an envelope-opening gig, Masuka neither cursed nor crassly vented her anger at the status quo.
Unlike Margaret Singana, Masuka was never a crossover act remembered by ageing and oh-so-caring white tannies and their children as "such a darling". Firm, beautiful, resolute and organic in her approach to culture and daily life, with no diva tendencies and no drama, she was a hard sell.
For the greater part of her musical repertoire and ideological journey, Masuka was an activist in the service of flesh-and-blood wars, real revolutions. She was on first-name terms with revolutionaries such as Kamau wa Ngengi (Jomo Kenyatta), Zimbabwe's Joshua Nkomo, and Julius Nyerere, to drop but a few names. She composed radioactive songs for the likes of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba and evoked the revolutionary ethos and teachings of, among others, Mau-Mau leader Dedan Kimathi. She experienced several liberation battles in Southern, Eastern and Central Africa at the coalface.
Born in 1935 in Bulawayo in the then Southern Rhodesia, the fourth of seven children of a Zulu mother from KwaZulu-Natal and a Zambian father, Masuka grew up like any other young girl on the block until just before her teens. As a young girl she delighted in taking part - secretly, and to her parents' dismay when they found out - in local children's beauty contests and singing and dancing shows.
In later interviews she said the family name was erroneously registered as Masuku, an example of the rote bungling of African names and surnames by the British colonial office of "native affairs". Just after World War 2, the Masuka family moved to Pimville in Johannesburg, one of the oldest neighbourhoods of what would later become Soweto.
Here Masuka came into her own. Flush with talent, with laughter always at the ready, a penetrating gaze and a singular voice, she was sucked into the vortex of popular jazz, jive, jitterbug, marabi, tsaba-tsaba and African vaudeville culture.
Her voice vacillated between a controlled alto and the thin, high pitch of a teenage girl, but even now listening to her early recorded output is mesmerising. It was not long before she burst out fully formed. At first Masuka recorded for Troubadour Records while Makeba, then a sizzling young woman in her mid-20s, recorded for the competing studio, Gallotone.
Masuka, Makeba, Dolly Rathebe and Thandi Klaasen were among the frontmen and frontwomen scooped from harmony groups and formed into touring troupes known as "variety" shows. One of the early innovators of contemporary performance culture was Griffiths Motsieloa, whose Pitch Black Follies showcased the talent of Snowy Radebe.
And then, as the writer ZB Molefe observes in the book, A Common Hunger to Sing: "The Jazz Maniacs leader Solomon 'Zulu Boy' Cele created the Harlem Babies, an all-girl quartet led by Marjorie Pretorius."
Pretorius would later front the Jazz Maniacs as vocalist.
Elsewhere in the rapidly urbanising "Eastern Native" and "Western Native" townships of the Reef, a slew of singer/actors and beauty queen all-rounders reigned supreme, among them Martha Mdenge, known for her hit Mgewundini; Mabel Mafuya; Mabel Magada; and Emily Kwenane, the foremost blues voice in prewar SA.
The genre within which this cohort of supreme vocal stylists worked was known as "the blues", a mix of new African urban folk with a dash of torch-singing and snatches of secular African hymnody.
It was onto this stage that Masuka and Makeba stepped in the 1950s. Decades later, Masekela made a point of acknowledging Masuka as "the most prolific composer of either sex the African continent has ever known, with the exception of Congo's rhumba star, Franco".
Her sinuous and cheerful first hit, Nontsokolo, made her a marquee name of the 1950s. Now she is more respected for her compositions Khauleza, Kulala and Phata Phata, made popular by her peers and everyone they've influenced from the 1960s to this day.
In her memoir, Makeba: My Story (co-written with James Hall), Makeba says of her younger friend and musical rival: "Without doubt Dorothy was the main star of Alfred Herbert's African Jazz & Variety."
A few months after the Sharpeville massacre, Masuka recorded the song Dr Malan, a disdainful sonic letter to the then National Party prime minister DF Malan and his white supremacist regime. It was instantly banned. Her ode to the assassinated Congolese leader, Lumumba, which was recorded the same year, hastened her departure from SA.
In her 31 years in exile, Masuka moved between Northern and Southern Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe), where she continued her courageous blend of cultural and ideological activism within the anti-colonial Pan Africanist and African independence movements. In Zimbabwe, she aligned herself with Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zapu).
Largely because of her openly insurrectionist politics and cultural pride, some believe Masuka was an active combatant. I have seen a photo of her in full military regalia, which of course confirms nothing about her possible role in guerrilla warfare.
The film producer Glen "Ujebe" Masokoane recalls her saying she was an active combatant in Zapu's armed wing, the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (Zipra). Another friend has faint memories of Masuka telling of her "active role in the underground, as a courier and so on".
Did she combine her musical role in Zimbabwe's battle for independence with active service in the bush?
After consulting music scholars, journalists, friends and her comrades based in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Johannesburg and the US, I finally spoke to politician Dumiso Dabengwa, president of the resurrected Zapu and former intelligence chief ofZipra.
Dabengwa, who has immense respect for Masuka's role in the struggle, offered clarification.
"Mama Dorothy has been associated with Zapu, the liberation organ, since its inception," he said. "She also worked with the Golden Crooners, a group of musicians who were actually trained operatives, and that is how a perception that she too was a trained combatant might have formed.
"No, she wasn't. She was our cultural ambassador."
Dabengwa tells a story about how in 1973 Masuka led a Zapu delegation to a conference in Berlin to explain the group's approach to the struggle and how it differed from that of the Zimbabwe Africa National Union (Zanu).
On April 18 1980, Zimbabwe joyously celebrated independence. Bob Marley arrived on a chartered Boeing 707 with 21 tons of equipment and gave a free concert at Rufaro Stadium in Mbare, outside Harare, to mark the occasion.
Peace would prove to be a short-lived dream, a mirage at best, for the descendants of the great Munhumutapa kingdom. In 1983 the victorious Zanu-led army began what spiralled into a genocidal elimination of its rivals. Over four years more than 20,000 civilians and opposition soldiers were massacred in one of the most tragic internecine wars to befall the African continent.
This was a mere three years after independence. It portended worse for the African project. Seven years later civil war erupted in Rwanda, leading to a genocide 100 times worse in scale and depravity.
Dabengwa, who by then was in detention, recalls Masuka's reaction to events in Zimbabwe.
"I was not surprised to learn that Masuka, terribly shaken and forlorn, left Zimbabwe again," he said. "Once again, it felt she would forever be homeless, for everywhere she made home, bloodshed was not so far away."
She was destined to be a troubadour for life. And now she's gone again.

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day or Financial Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.