Sunday 25 September 2011
She dined with Kenneth Kaunda, Kamuzu Banda and Julius Nyerere
Southern Africa owes me a glass of water. I never held a gun but my voice was as powerful as a gun. It took me a few seconds to send my revolutionary messages home to millions of people.
When I sang Tinogara Musango and Dr Malan, it was like being with the people. I have eaten and stayed with the region greatest – Kenneth Kaunda, the late Julius Nyerere and Kamuzu Banda. It was not fun then – Dorothy Masuku
I have met Dorothy Masuku on four occasions now but the most memorable one was when she was preparing for her 70th birthday celebration in November 2005 at Sports Diner in Harare.
I remember well Masuku, who is now resident in South Africa, declaring that Zimbabwe is her home because her ‘mother’s bones lie here’.
Masuku can be rightly called the daughter of the southern African region because when she was forced into exile by the Ian Smith regime, she found a home first in Zambia, then Malawi before sojourning in Tanzania.
Masuka was born in Zimbabwe in 1935, then called Southern Rhodesia. She was the fourth of seven children and her mother was Zulu while her father was a Zambian hotel chef. Still, she attended a Catholic school deemed good by the standards of education allowed blacks. Her family moved to South Africa when she was twelve due to her health. By the time she was nineteen she was touring in South Africa with singers she had admired as a girl.
Masuku's music was popular in South Africa throughout the 1950s, but when her songs became more serious, the government began questioning her. Her song "Dr. Malan," mentioning difficult laws, was banned and in 1961 she sang a song for Patrice Lumumba which led to her exile. This exile lasted thirty-one years in total. Many of her songs are in the Ndebele language or IsiNdebele languages.
In the 1950s, the jazz age was on in the cities of South Africa, and a beautiful young singer from Bulawayo--in today's Zimbabwe--came to Johannesburg to try her luck. Masuku's father was hotel chef, originally from Zambia, and her mother a Zulu woman whose ancestors had trekked from Natal to Bulawayo around 1875, just as Cecil Rhodes was beginning his fateful incursions into the Matebele Kingdom. The fourth of seven children, Dorothy came of age in Southern Rhodesia. When her father left the family home for Port Elizabeth, South Africa, she was in Catholic primary school, a good turn for her, as many African Rhodesians were denied any real education. Masuku's own move to South Africa originally had nothing to do with musical ambitions. She was in poor health, and the family thought the dry southern climate would be good for her. She was just twelve years old.
At St. Thomas, a Catholic boarding school in Johannesburg, Masuku blossomed as a singer at school concerts. She also discovered popular music, and developed a particular ear for American jazz. Louis Jordan was an early favorite. It wasn't long before she realized that great things were happening in the music scene around her as well. Dolly Rathebe became the rage after her singing role in the 1949 film "Jim Comes to Jo'burg." Masuka managed to meet and impress Rathebe, but her real break came a few years later when she was invited to audition for a new record label called Troubadour. She got the job, earning, as she recalls, five or ten pounds for her first recording.
Launched in 1951, Troubadour was an expression of the new urban black culture that was sprouting through the cracks in the apartheid system. At sixteen, Masuku became swept up in the scene, fleeing the confines of St. Thomas to join Philemon Mogotsi's African Ink Spots in Durban. She was soon apprehended and returned to Johannesburg, but quickly made off again, this time back to Bulawayo, where she struck up with a young jazz group called the Golden Rhythm Crooners, a group would exert a major musical influence on the young Thomas Mapfumo a few years later.
At this point, Masuku's family, school and record label came to an agreement. There was no denying it any longer. This girl was going to be a singer. Troubadour's Stewart Cook went to Bulawayo to record the Golden Rhythm Crooners for the label, and return with the fledgling star in tow. On the train from Bulawayo to Johannesburg, Masuku wrote "Hamba Notsokolo," one of the biggest South African hits of the 1950s, and still a staple in her songbook. In 1954, not yet 20-years-old, Masuku found herself touring South Africa with the likes of the Harlem Swingsters and Dolly Rathebe, and appearing on the covers of magazines. That year, she sang in the Johannesburg concert that led directly to African Jazz and Variety, a hugely successful touring black musical revue that played to both black and white audiences. An article in the magazine Zonk wrote that Masuka could outsell Bing Crosby.
During her years with Troubadour, Masuku befriended and began working with another talented young singer, Miriam Makeba. Masuku saw herself as a composer at least as much as a singer and she naturally began to take on serious themes in her songs. Her song "Dr. Malan"--which included the line "Dr. Malan has difficult laws."--earned the attention of South Africa's feared Special Branch, which paid Masuku a visit and promptly banned the record. When she sang for Lumumba, the fallen hero of Congolese independence, in 1961, the Special Branch seized the master and all copies of the record they could find. As it happened, Masuku had returned to Bulawayo, and the label advised her to stay there until things settled down. That took 31 years.
During those difficult years of exile, Masuku worked in Malawi and Tanzania, singing for independence era presidents Hastings Banda and Julius Nyerere. Her return to Bulawayo in 1965 created a stir, both musically and politically. Ian Smith had just declared Southern Rhodesia's independence from England, and the country was digging in for fifteen years of struggle to achieve real independence. Faced with the prospect of arrest, Masuku fled again, not to return home until the nation of Zimbabwe was established in 1980. At last back in Bulawayo, she resumed composing and recording. Her 1990 album Pata Pata (Mango) recognized new realities, mixing her customary jazz songs with more contemporary sounds, including Shona traditional pop.
In 1992, Masuku at last returned to the city she loves most, Johannesburg. There she found a world transformed in every way, but she set right about fitting into it, producing another ground breaking album, Magumede. In 2001, Masuka released what may be her most mature and powerful recordings to date. Mzilikazi takes its name from the founding king of the Matabele Kingdom, the land to which Masuku's grandfather trekked in 1875. In many ways, it marks both a return and a new arrival for one of Africa's most venerable singers. - Banning Eyre
She left for SA in 1953 (see the Cool Crooners story) when she ran away after a tour of Harare with the Golden Rhythm Crooners band. According to Timothy Sekane, Masuku took along the money they had been paid for their shows and left.
Once in SA, she struck it out
Below she told me about her life
When some people turn 70 they ask for respect, love, care, food and shelter while others ask for tall orders from their children and grandchildren.
This is understandable because when a person turns 70, they would have gone almost full circle back to childhood but one with a difference.
But then what would you do with a 70-year-old who asks just for a quiet place by a river and a glass of water from those whom she helped?
Weird, isn't it?
Maybe if it were not Dorothy Masuku, who still recalls her childhood in Mbare when they used to collect cow dung for their floors in Harare's oldest location, one would see this as weird.
If it were not Masuku who vividly remembers excursions in the Harare Kopje where they picked mazhanje and participated in the fights at the open space where Rufaro Stadium stands today.
“We would gather sand and call them teats. The bully ones would then challenge any two people to kick the small heaps of sand. A fight would ensue until one bled from the nose or mouth. We would then say abuda gold,” she recalled.
She also recalled some of the nomadic musicians who played in the townships from a trailer. But the sound of Nyau drums from Mukuvisi River as different, she told me.
“I remember very well the Nyau drums from the river. They struck right into my soul. But I was told I could not go near the river because I would be harmed. That music meant a lot to me,” she revealed.
Well, if it were not Masuku who celebrated her birthday yesterday in Harare.
But this is Dorothy Masuku who has walked the long journey from those early days in Mbare when she came to stay with her sister and then back to Makokoba, in Bulawayo where the musical career of which she is known today blossomed.
Although she did not perform in Bulawayo at the occasion of turning 70, Masuku or Auntie Dot who says others now call her Mom D was still at home in Zimbabwe, Africa.
"In fact, I belong to Africa. I am an African woman. I am Dorothy of Africa.
In that case, I am still thinking of where I could settle down close to a river. I need a tranquil atmosphere of a small village. I am tired of big cities and all the noise," she mourned.
And this is not just a baseless claim because Masuku stayed in a number of African countries when she went into exile after composing and singing politically incorrect songs.
She sojourned in Zambia, Tanzania, Malawi, Kenya and Mozambique not as a refugee but as a cadre who fought with her voice.
"Africa owes me, especially this region. They have not said thank you to me for the little I have done.
"Although I was pleased to be invited to the Silver Jubilee Celebrations here last April, they came long after I had wondered when they would come. I had celebrated many (Nelson) Mandela birthday parties but not Zimbabwe's," she said.
Still fit and active, Masuku has won three lifetime achievement awards and is in the Halls of Fame in South Africa and the United States.
Although some of her music was recorded and performed by other great musicians of the time that include Miriam Makeba who is set to retire from active performances any time soon, Masuku does not show it because she says it is the way it should be.
Her wish and advice to younger divas: "They should look at us, how far we have come and then ask why we are still here doing what we are doing.
"They should understand that music is not like any other thing in the world. Music is godly. It demands discipline. It does not need hangovers.
"I pray to God that people like Chiwoniso (Maraire) should not be carried away by drink and smoking. One does not feel happy by drinking or smoking. Music should make them feel happy. Because it is clean. It heals the sick. They should respect it by avoiding doing unclean things," she advised.
She added that she has no regrets with the way her life has been so Jar and hopes the same happens to the youngsters even now when HIV and Aids is taking its toll on musicians and many other people.
"It is possible for the younger musicians to live this long if they try. They should know HIV is incurable. All they have to do is avoid doing certain things, especially the girls since they can abstain easily."
Masuku maintains that she would not retire from active performance like her friend Makeba who has already held farewell performances throughout Africa.
"I will be singing as long as my voice is still good. The likes of Ella Fitzgerald were still performing at 80. Anyway, how does one retire from music?" she asked.
She could be right because one of her grandchildren has just released an album that peaked at number one in some South African musical charts.
In a big way, even if she says she would be resigning from music, her grandchildren would certainly be carrying her voice and messages across. That way, her presence in the music scene remains.
A figure that fits in both South African and Zimbabwean cultures, Masuku whose father was Zambian and mother South African was born in Zimbabwe.
She became an integral part of South African musical revolution where she teamed up with that country's greatest and saw Nelson Mandela emerging as the leader he is today.
"I am happy and thankful to God that I lived long enough to see Mandela come out of prison."
One of the Madiba Legends, together with the late Dolly Rathebe, Abigail Kubeka, Sophie Mgcina and Thandie Klaasen, Masuku's contribution to both Zimbabwean and South African music is immense.