The late Dorothy Masuka or Auntie Dorothy, as several generations of appreciative southern African fans call the warm and charismatic vocalist and songwriter, blazed a trail for female pop stars in the Southern African region and became a dogged advocate of the struggle against apartheid.
Performing in a jazz-inflected pop style and singing in native African languages often about politics, she rose to fame in the mid-1950s, becoming one of the first black female recording artists to achieve stardom across southern and eastern Africa. She wrote prolifically, and other South African stars covered many of her songs. Miriam Makeba adapted Ms Masuka’s “Pata Pata” (originally titled “Ei-Yow”), turning it into her signature song. Hugh Masekela, Thandiswa Mazwai and others covered tunes like “Kulala” and “Hamba Nontsokolo”.
Auntie Dorothy was born on Sept. 3, 1935, in Bulawayo. Her father was a chef who worked for rail companies and hotels, and her mother ran a restaurant. She got her first taste of performing at her mother’s shop, where she sang songs for pennies in the tsaba-tsaba style, rhythmic dance music popular in the 1940s. She attended Roman Catholic mission schools, first in her hometown and then, after moving at 12, in Johannesburg.
In 1952 she played hooky to go on tour with the African Inkspots, a renowned male vocal ensemble based in Johannesburg. The following year she again ditched school to appear in the Rhodes Centenary Exhibition in Bulawayo, where she won first place in the Miss Bulawayo beauty contest.
The win helped persuade her family to support her ambitions as a performer. Her mother signed a contract with Troubadour Records on behalf of Dorothy, who was still a minor. She immediately recorded a handful of songs, including her first hit single, “Hamba Nontsokolo.” An upbeat piece guided by a swinging guitar rhythm, it featured her chirruping voice over a bed of vocal harmonies, reflecting the popular sound of South African vocal groups at the time. The song became Ms Masuka’s calling card, and Nontsokolo became her nickname.
In the late 1950s, she performed often in both South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, becoming a top act in both countries. She was a regular on Johannesburg’s thriving club circuit and toured with the African Jazz and Variety revue, a pioneering travelling show that featured some of South Africa’s finest black musicians and performing artists. Ms Masuka’s recording of “Into Yam” — the revue’s closing number, and its only song to come from the black townships — became a dance-hall hit.
Ms Masuka’s career took off right as a newly cosmopolitan culture was flourishing among young black South Africans. At the same time, the country’s apartheid regime was tightening its repressive policies. From early in her career, she wrote and recorded songs that squarely addressed the racist policies of the South African government and others across the continent. She sang to support the nonviolent Defiance Campaign, and she denounced the pro-apartheid politician D. F. Malan in “Dr Malan.” In 1961 she recorded “Lumumba,” addressing the assassination of the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. The South African authorities tried to seize all copies of the record, and Ms Masuka went into exile for many years.
Ms Masuka did not make a full-length album until 1987 when she recorded “Ingalo” for the Zimbabwean Starplate label. She followed it with “Pata Pata,” in 1990, for the British label Mango, which reinvigorated her career, subsequently followed that with a few more albums in the 1990s and 2000s, including “Mzilikazi” and “Lendaba,” both for South Africa’s Gallo label.
Ms Masuka was inducted into the Afropop Hall of Fame in New York in 2002, and four years later President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa awarded her the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver, a high national honour bestowed upon artists, writers and other cultural figures.
She continued to perform well into her 80s. In 2017, she shared a bill with the pianist Abdullah Ibrahim at Town Hall in New York and released her final album, “Nginje” in 2018.
Ms Masuka died in February 2019, at 83.
Today she is considered a national hero in both South Africa and Zimbabwe, though she resisted aligning herself with any single country.
“I’m a child of every part of this continent,” she said in a 2015 interview at the Zanzibar International Film Festival, when asked about her history of activism. “I’ve been fighting not for a particular area — I’ve been fighting for South Africa, I’ve been fighting for Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania, Congo and all these places. So I feel I don’t belong to one place.”
One of her songs that most people subliminally ‘recognise’, even if they’re unaware of having heard it before, is ‘Nhingirikiri’ which has an easy-rolling swing tempo that is the hallmark of early marabi jazz and penny-whistle jive.
Reckon jazz is just for connoisseurs and is merely a niche genre these days? Then think again, for if it wasn’t for jazz, we wouldn’t have the blues or the myriad of different styles of music that have rocked our world ever since. Zimbabwe’s interest in and bond with jazz music is significant, and it has resulted in numerous outstanding works through collaborations between jazz and traditional musicians at national, continental and international level. All April long, #enthuse through our 30 Days of Iconic Zimbabwean Jazz series celebrates the heritage and history of jazz music and curates thirty songs by jazz pioneers and contemporary musicians who have successfully taken on the genre and defined a sound for the rest of the world to follow.