“I didn’t plan to be a singer. Singing planned to be in me. I am possessed by music … I have to sing to live,” Dorothy Masuku says plainly in a short video titled Tea with Dorothy Masuka, shot by the Mail & Guardian in 2014 (Masuka was her stage name). Her greying hair is tousled into loose curls. The pink rouge on her lips softens her severely drawn-on eyebrows.
She continues. “A lot of my songs, they talk. The way of my singing is to send a message … each and every song I have written is to do with something.”
Indeed, the 84-year-old songstress who died on Saturday 23 February etched out an existence by simply rendering herself up to the gift. Her lyrics, both literal and figurative, celebrate her transnational and pan-African identities – she was born on 3 September 1935 in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, to a Zambian father and South African mother.
At 12 years old, Masuku left Bulawayo and enrolled at St Thomas Convent School in Johannesburg. Soon after, she signed to Troubadour Records. Working with the African Inkspots, leading as a vocalist with Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz and Variety Show and performing with the Harlem Swingsters, Masuku honed and crafted her talent as a singer and performer.
Having recorded Nontsokolo, Khawuleza, Into Yam’, Zono Zam in her early teen years, Masuku began to develop her skill set as a deeply modernist lyricist and songwriter, choosing to sing about what she saw and understood of the urban experience across the continent and how her music revealed the sociopolitical contours of the worlds she occupied.
Khawuleza, for instance, which Hugh Masekela performed and covered, chronicles the precarious lives shebeen queens live, brewing and selling beer in South Africa’s townships. “Khawuleza,” she croons, “nanka amapolisa ayangena indlini”, an urgent warning for the beer maidens to hurry up with their elicit enterprise as the apartheid police were fast approaching their homes.
Masuku often drew on government and police officials for her subject matter. In her obituary of Masuku, Gwen Ansell writes that “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, and any remaining copies of these songs have yet to come to light. 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.”
Writer David B Coplan and photographer Oscar Gutierrez provide a useful description in their book, Last Night at the Bassline, of the “jazz people” typically associated with Sophiatown, of which Masuku and her music formed a part:
“Adored on stage but disapproved of by their audiences, the ‘jazz people’ were especially disliked and persecuted by the white authorities. To begin with, they could not be slotted into any of the categories for Africans in the cities with which the government was comfortable.
“They were neither rural ‘traditional’ labour migrants, nor Christian educated and settled city folk. They had no fixed addresses or employment that could be written in their passbooks (‘musician’ was not a recognised job category) … In sum, they were African cosmopolitans and as such, ‘people out of place’”. In a 2016 interview about the Market Theatre production Divas of Kofifi: A Tribute To Thandi Klaasen, Masuku reflected on the work she and her musical contemporaries, Abigail Kubeka and Thandi Klaasen, had contributed to in Sophiatown.
“Creators, creative women, that’s what it was all about,” Masuku starts slowly as she answers who and what the production sought to symbolise.
That’s why some of us are still here today,” she continues, “because we created something that is still living and that will live forever. And many years after I am gone, I will still be here.”
Rephrasing Coplan and Gutierrez’s words, perhaps, “Sophiatown lives on, not least significantly in the minds and memories of everyone who loves the art forms that gave Johannesburg’s canary-in-a-mineshaft culture something to sing about”. But it also finds its home nestled in the sounds that came to define Masuku’s songbook.
Dorothy Masuku’s memorial takes place on Friday 1 March at the Johannesburg Theatre and her funeral will be on Sunday 3 March.