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The history of Yeoville reveals this Joburg suburb as having been a bohemian cultural hub from the 1970s, attracting many artists and musicians. So it’s not surprising that this is where the legendary Dorothy Masuka lives.
She is one of the most important singers and composers of the generation of Miriam Makeba and Dolly Rathebe, who is still at it today.
As one of the most famous singers and cover girls of the 1950s, she wrote some of the biggest hits of that decade, some of which were made famous by and featured in the repertoires of Makeba and Hugh Masekela.
She lives in Yeoville’s Webb Street, the same street where Mandela is believed to have been given refuge in a flat of the late Wolfie Kodesh – one of his white comrades – when he was on the run from the police in the early 1960s.
Masuka lives with her grandchildren, and her house is also where she’s rehearsing for her performance at the Cape Town International Jazz festival at the end of the month.
The band she will be playing with includes well known left handed guitarist from Durban, Bheki Khoza whom she rates as a “talented young boy”.
“In the near future I will be working with Bheki – he can play my jazz material better and he has rhythm. That has to do with his Zulu roots.
“But for the jazz festival we’ll be doing typical jazz standards sprinkled with some of my own stuff. It’s a jazz festival after all, and the kind of jazz we do is not easy, it’s deep and nostalgic. I will be doing songs like Mr Wonderful, Stardust and Three Coins in a Fountain.”
Nowadays her repertoire includes Afrikaans, Jewish and Indian music as well as songs in Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and Swahili. She calls it rainbow nation kind of music. But back in the 1950s, the jazz movement came as a result of the American jazz influence.
“That’s why some of us are good jazz singers,” she says. “We’d listen to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, with a little bit of gospel from Mahalia Jackson. But African jazz, Irabi, is by nature not aggressive. As Africans we like to take it easy – with influences from mbaqanga, isicathamiya and mbube, classic traditional music.”
The living room of her house has pictures of her with dignitaries like Mandela. One of them was taken just after she had returned to South Africa from exile in 1991.
But it’s the arty picture of her very young self portraying a killer slender figure in a green floral dress singing into the mic, that stands out.
It was taken just after she had recorded Nontsokolo, the hit song that catapulted her to stardom.
She says she was 14 years old at the time the picture was taken.
She wrote Nontsokolo on her way from Zimbabwe (which she still calls Rhodesia) to Joburg. It was inspired by her parents – a Zulu nanny and Zambian chef who met on the train.
Reminiscing about her past she also opens up about her relationship with one of South Africa’s greatest composers of the 1950s, Victor Ndlazilwana, who was also a mentor to the likes of Caiphus Semenya.
“Victor and I were tight. We were supposed to get married and we never had a child together. Musically we shared a lot. He wrote songs and I wrote songs,” she says.
Many of Masuka’s songs have been etched on people’s psyche because of their fun, flair and poignancy. And they stick because they deliver their messages without being wordy.
She wrote Pata Pata, made famous by Makeba, Into Yami which the youngsters have taken to, and the feisty Suka Lapha.
The more serious songs that speak of the socio-political plights of her era include, Khawuleza (made famous by Hugh Masekela) and Lendaba talking about the everyday struggles of black people in the townships.
But it’s the tunes, Dr Malan, directed at the apartheid minister, and Lumumba, dedicated to the Congolese Independent leader, that identified Masuka as an African nationalist and got her into trouble with the apartheid regime.
Her songs were banned and she fled into exile, living in countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Malawi and Tanzania. She was in exile for 33 years.
“What got me through was my stubbornness. I knew I belong here, I’m an African,” she says and it’s obvious her political voice is still very strong.
In fact, producer extraordinaire Mfundi Vundla is working on a film based on Masuka’s life, but focusing on the political side and capturing her as a singer and a mother.
Masuka will play her older self, but there’s a search on for a younger actress who will play her in her youth.
Two years ago Masuka recorded a live DVD with a number of musicians she calls her friends including Caiphus Semenya, Hugh Masekela, Abigail Kubeka, Sibongile Khumalo and Thandiswa Mazwai.
At the recording of that DVD at the Joburg Theatre, Masekela put Masuka in the Top 10 of SA’s most prolific composers, and the writing does not stop.
And she is still performing, but mostly outside the country. It’s the themes that have changed.
“There’s no more music now. People should go back to telling stories and having messages in their songs. We are considered classic now, and the young generation does not know what to ask us.
“We live in a wounded world and I wonder if we’re nearing the end of the world. What I’m seeing is terri- fying and can’t be recorded quickly,” she says.
She will be recording new material with Gallo soon and when she’s not singing she’s a spokeswoman for malaria. One of her wishes is to conduct music workshops in schools, like she does on her travels overseas.
• See Dorothy Masuka performing at the Cape Town International Jazz festival on March 30 and 31.