Dorothy Masuku: A lifetime of singing and writing songs

With the 2017 Arts & Culture Trust Lifetime Achievement Award for Music, Dorothy Masuku is recognised as one of Africa’s all-time greatest vocalists, performers and one of its most prolific composers, having written hits like ‘Hamba Nontsokolo’ and ‘Pata Pata’.

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Born in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in September 1935, Masuku (Masuka is actually a misspelling that originated with the record labels on her earliest recordings) rose to fame in the early 1950s after abandoning her Catholic boarding school education in Johannesburg to join Philemon Magotsi’s African Ink Spots in Durban at the age of 15. She was sent back to Johannesburg, where she ran away again, this time to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, to join the Golden Rhythm Crooners jazz band. Masuku later went on tour with the Harlem Swingers and her jazz idol, Dolly Rathebe. It was during this tour that she teamed up with jazz legend Hugh Masekela and close friend Miriam Makeba in the African Jazz and Variety Show, which introduced black musicians to white audiences through talent scout Alfred Herbert. As a devout Christian, Dorothy Masuku first expressed gratitude to God for such an honour when she was asked about her Lifetime Achievement Award. She then shared how much she misses her old friend Miriam Makeba on occasions like this. ‘I miss her very much because one of the things that she used to tell me when we were abroad was: “You know, Dorothy, you are going to take over from me after a couple of years when I am gone.” And I used to say: “What do you mean, when you’re gone?” and she used to say, “I’ll be gone before you do.” She used to sing a lot of my songs, some of them made her very popular. Even the first time she went abroad, she performed lots of my songs. So, you can imagine how much I really miss her.’

Many of her performances were as a soloist, accompanied by close-harmony groups and other big bands that featured in the 1950s

When asked how she has consistently managed to compose great music over all these years, Masuku says, ‘Well for me, I think it’s just what I was born to be. I was put on this earth to be what I am, it’s not something that I wanted to be, it’s what God wanted me to be. You can’t stop me from making music because it’s my life, it’s what makes me tick. Without singing, I will die. I didn’t set out to become a musical star, music called me. I don’t know how to explain it; it’s in the blood.’ It certainly has been in Masuku’s blood for a very long time. At 16 she began penning gems like ‘Hamba Nontsokolo’, which she wrote while on a train from Zimbabwe to Johannesburg. The song is about someone who is struggling; ‘Nontsokolo’ means someone who suffers. It was about her own struggle. The song’s easy kwela rhythm soon became a hit on Johannesburg’s music scene and has since been used in major international films such as Cry the Beloved Country. ‘Hamba Nontsokolo’ was later followed by the jazz classic, ‘Pata Pata’. The song was made famous the world over by Miriam Makeba, and reached the Billboard Top 15 in the United States in 1967. Masuku’s status as a top pin-up and glamour girl in the 1950s soon made her the principal star in Herbert’s African Jazz and Variety Show. Many of her performances were as a soloist, accompanied by close-harmony groups and other big bands that featured in the 1950s. By composing her own songs, which were inspired by events occurring in South African townships in the 1950s, Masuku provided insight into sociopolitical issues of township life. For example, she penned the song ‘Khawuleza’ – a warning to the women who brewed illegal alcohol and sold it in shebeens that the police were on their way. She wrote and sang songs about life in Johannesburg, about what was happening around them – like telling the story of how women in Pimville, Soweto, where she lived with her family, dug holes in the ground to hide illegal alcohol in during police raids.

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Masuku drew the attention of the apartheid government’s censors when her songs became increasingly political and spoke directly about the oppressive segregation laws that the apartheid government was introducing in rapid succession, aiming at restricting the movement and the human rights of the black majority. The Special Branch investigated Masuku and her band and forced them into exile for more than 30 years – first to her home country, Zimbabwe, and then to Zambia where she later settled. She returned to Zimbabwe in 1981, after their independence, and became a professional singer once again and only returned to South Africa after the release of Nelson Mandela. She currently lives in Johannesburg with her grandchildren and continues to perform regularly. ‘I have a lot of material that I would like to record. I have lots of songs because of what is happening to the country right now, or to the world, as one wrote songs about events, about love, about problems… there is so much in South Africa that you can write about. I’ve written some of the material, it’s all put away in my head, or I write them down in a book, and I keep them. Some youngsters are coming to me and saying, “Mama, can we do a song of yours?” and I let them do that.’ When asked what her plans for the future are, Masuku laughs, ‘I don’t have much of the future, sweetheart, because I’m 82. I’m 82, I just carry on, no plan, just carry on. If I have to work this coming month, I’ll work. If I have to go somewhere, I’ll go. But I’m not planning; at my age, you don’t plan anything like that.’

The 2017 ACT Lifetime Achievement Award winners are:

Arts Advocacy (sponsored by Creative Feel): Lindiwe Mabuza
Dance (sponsored by JT International): Adele Blank
Visual Arts (sponsored by Nedbank Arts Affinity): Basil Jones & Adrian Kohler of The Handspring Puppet Company
Music (sponsored by South African Music Rights Organisation [SAMRO]): Dorothy Masuku
Literature (sponsored by Dramatic Rights and Literary Organisation [DALRO]): James Matthews

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