I was once shown the script for a biopic purporting tell the early story of the late Dorothy Masuku (Masuka was her stage name). It was highly professional, but a shallow, deeply patriarchal thing in which Masuku’s pioneering work as a composer, her acute and precocious political consciousness and proud pan-Africanism were sidelined in favour of a narrative of affairs and flirtations. The sidelining continues. Dorothy Masuku was not simply the ‘jazz singer’ many newscasts today label her, although she certainly was that too. And she certainly had a life worthy of a serious biopic.
Dorothy Masuku was born in Bulawayo in then Rhodesia in 1935. Her father was a chef, originally from Zambia, but her mother, Liza Mafuyani, was a Zulu-speaking South African whose family originated from Ematsheni in KZN, and whose sister lived in Pimville. Her grandmother in KZN had been a sangoma, and Masuku spoke later of the spiritual sources of inspiration for her songs. They often came to her in dreams, and she would immediately sing them to somebody else in the house, so that elusive memory was captured.
The young Dorothy moved to live with her aunt in South Africa in 1947, aged 12, when, on health grounds – she had asthma – she was enrolled at St Thomas Convent School in Johannesburg. There, she joined the school choir and her talent was immediately spotted.
She was signed to the Troubadour record label in her early teens after impressive performances at her school concerts. She worked with the greatest bands of the period, including the African Inkspots and the Harlem Swingsters, and was lead vocalist with Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz and Varieties, including a tour to Mozambique. Historical narratives of jazz in that era focus on the solidarities among male musicians, but when Masuku spoke of those days at a Sophiatown panel discussion last April, she revealed a different story: the links and solidarities among women musicians, from her tuition in Yiddish lyrics with Sarah Sylvia to the protection from male predation that she, as one of the youngest performers, was given by the older women on those tours.
During her teens, Masuku composed and recorded close to 30 singles, several of which – including Hamba Nontsokolo, Khawuleza, Into Yam’, Zono Zam and Ei Yoh Phata Phata (the first hit song of that name, predating Miriam Makeba’s later composition) – achieved major hit status.
In the mid ‘50s, Zonk music magazine opined that the only artist who was outselling Masuka in South Africa was Bing Crosby. She later wryly noted that the rewards were never commensurate: she’d be bought a dress, or given ‘spending money’ for her work, never a contract, wage or royalties.
Masuku wrote and recorded more music in Zimbabwe (mainly with Job’s Combination and the Golden Rhythm Crooners), and later composed and recorded in multiple other African languages in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia (for the Zambia Music Parlour label). Her work was also performed by other South African artists in exile, notably Miriam Makeba. Because of the fragmented, semi-formal nature of the African recording industry in the 20th Century, no complete discography of all her credits exists, but it is likely the total of her compositions in all African languages exceeds 100.
It was the radical spirit of Masuka’s songwriting that led to her long years of exile. The 1957 Zono Zam recorded during the anti-pass campaign https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYHOl6yv7lU reflected: “It’s so hard in this world: Lord, help us to be free”. Two of her other songs, Dr Malan (“…has difficult laws”) and Lumumba (speculating about who murdered the Congolese leader) so infuriated the South African Special Branch that they seized and destroyed the masters: no copies can now be found. Dr Malan was the first South African song by any artist – let alone a young woman not long out of school, and not yet 20 – to call out an apartheid minister by name.
She continued to compose as she travelled across Africa: from North and South Rhodesia to Nyasaland (now Malawi), and into East Africa too. Everywhere, she composed in national languages; everywhere, she stirred up support for liberation struggles.
Masuku clearly and explicitly identified herself with the African nationalist cause, first in South Africa – “I didn’t understand why I should be barred from that restaurant (…) or to be with that person” – and then in all the other countries she performed and worked in.
After travelling across Africa, she was moved by the ANC to London. She performed at the London Palladium, for BBC-TV, and in various shows with Sir John (then Johnny) Dankworth and Cleo Laine. Later, she spent a brief period back in then Rhodesia, fleeing again to Zambia ahead of Ian Smith’s Special Branch. She spent 16 years there, performing and earning a living as an air hostess – pioneering that career as an elegant, intelligent independent woman with one of the earliest independent African airlines. During her 31 years of exile, she was repeatedly refused entry to South Africa by the apartheid authorities, having been declared persona non grata.
She returned only in 1992, settled in Yeoville in Johannesburg, and immediately began performing and composing new material, something she continued to do to the end of her life. After her return, she recorded four further original albums, including Mzilikazi https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/mzilikazi/1215625596 and Lendaba, https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/lendaba/1215620616 as well as releasing a collection of much of her historic material, Hamba Nontsokolo https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/hamba-nontsokolo/1216341590 . (Apartheid’s thugs did their work of erasure efficiently; the compilation lacks Dr Malan and Lumumba) She featured in all South Africa’s major jazz festivals and, two years ago, starred in the New York Town Hall concert commemorating the Jazz Epistles alongside Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya.
She was always a compelling performer, and never failed to draw standing ovations. I once stood behind her in a bank queue on a sweltering Joburg day. Joining the rest of us in loudly complaining about the intolerable temperatures, she ended her contribution to the chat with a short, mesmerising single chorus of It’s Too Darn Hot.
Yes, Masuka was a singer but so much more: a composer, a hero of the struggle, and an architect of the discourse of popular African liberation music. The last time I met her, last year , she was animatedly discussing buying a new home: she wanted trees and birdsong around her to create a peaceful space for yet more composition. Music, she told the SABC, was like breathing for her: it was her life. A stroke late last year took her out of public life, and she died yesterday, February 23. Hamba Kahle: may her great spirit rest in peace.
There are things worse than sidelining. The Sowetan led its story on the musician’s death as follows: “Legendary Kofifi-jazz musician Dorothy Masuka’s bizarre wish was to die on stage but when she took her last breath on Saturday she was with her family at home.”
“Bizarre wish”? How dare they! What more noble and natural than that someone who gave her life to music should desire to stay in its embrace until the end? Again, gender stereotyping ensures that women’s informed professional choices become “bizarre” – and that they often fail, even getting the timing of their own death wrong. This hits a new low in music “journalism”.
DOROTHY MASUKU: A SHORT PLAYLIST:
A liberation song – Bazuka https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bU7l2_KSxOc
Her most beloved hit – Hamba Nonsokolo https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/hamba-nontsokolo/1216341590
One from the old days: Ma Gumede https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/hamba-nontsokolo/1216341590
Live in Sophiatown with guitarist Bheki Khoza: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UL8T_6aRXpk
In conversation with Kaya FM’s Nicky Blumenfield https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUAJfn_UlJk
In conversation with Dr Lindelwa Dalamba, Bheki Khoza and Titi Luzipo at Sophiatown: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=LZreDR-p1d0&t=33s