Remembering Aunty Dot: Borderless queen of song

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I DO not like funerals. I remember trying to avoid attending funerals in my errant youth. I just did not want to know about the drudgery at funerals. The experience depressed me greatly.

There is undoubtedly nothing as morbid as going to see a dead man or woman in a coffin. But I have healed in that regard. I now embrace the opportunity as one of life’s rites of passage. It is sobering in its essence to consider one’s own mortality and to have even a momentary reckoning of one’s legacy. What remains behind when death’s cold finger has tapped our vain shoulders?

Aunty Dot

For Dorothy Masuku, it is a legacy of being a pan-African freedom fighter and an indomitable spirit.

“I want to go to Ghana to see (Kwame) Nkrumah, ndiyekeleni, I want to go to Kenya to see (Jomo) Kenyatta, ndiyekeleni, I want to go to Zaire to see (Patrice) Lumumba …” Thus Aunty Dot sang in one of her songs from the 1960s in the heady days of Africa’s anti-colonial struggle.

Though traditionally the title has not been associated with women, she was an African griot who sang before kings and common people. At her death, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa issued a statement about the jazz chanteuse, composer and recipient of South Africa’s National Order of Ikhamanga and described her as a significant loss to South Africa and Africa’s cultural heritage.

“Another golden voice in the chorus line of our nation has been silenced with the passing of Mama Dorothy Masuku. She belonged to a generation of artistes who transcended boundaries in art and politics long before we coined the concept of globalisation.”

Borderless African queen

That Masuku was born in Bulawayo in 1935 and moved to South Africa and gained fame during the 1950s. She recorded her first hit, Nontsokolo, in 1953 whilst still a 17-year-old schoolgirl.

The famous Iyo Pata Pata followed that song and was later recorded by Miriam Makeba who was to record other of her hits such as Khawuleza. The song depicted the shebeen scene.

But Masuku grew increasingly militant and songs such as Dr Malan decrying apartheid laws brought her into confrontation with the racist South African authorities. Later she was banned and exiled after releasing a song for then Zairean leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961.

Her exile brought her back to Zimbabwe where she remained for 31 years as well as living and working in Zambia as a flight attendant. She was only to return to Zimbabwe in 1980. The firebrand singer could not countenance oppression and human rights abuses. She spoke truth to power.

Her music reflected her pride in her Nguni roots in songs such as Mzilikazi, but she was also broadminded enough to sing classics such as Gona RaMachingura. In Zimbabwe, she worked with members of the Cool Crooners in the 1960s township jazz era.

This is the same milieu which produced the likes of August Musarurwa who penned Skokiaan which was later covered by American jazz icon Louis Armstrong.

Songstress par excellence

Masuku’s great strength was her sass and songwriting ability. This strength was to stand her in good stead in her sunset years in this cut-throat business which favours youth over experience.

I recall meeting her at the offices of the South African Music Rights Organisation (Samro) in Johannesburg in 2009. Of course, Masuku was at Samro to get her royalty cheques from her sizeable catalogue.

I had gone there to register my own work at a time when this country’s economy was in a tailspin. One of the officers at Samro, Lindelwa, upon discovering that I was from Zimbabwe, called Aunty Dot, who was so gracious as to come and greet me. I was in awe of her.

She had an aura of regality and confidence about her. I will never forget her eyes. There was a certain glint in her eyes. You could never forget that about her and, though she was aged, she was still beautiful. She was, by the way, one of the African beauties gracing Drum magazine as one of the showbiz icons in the 1950s and 1960s with the likes of Miriam Makeba and Dolly Rathebe.

The music of the times

The vibe of that era was marabi jazz and penny whistle jive. Sophiatown was the happening place before the forced evacuations by the apartheid regime.

The likes of Spokes Mashiane, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Miriam Makeba and Abigail Khubeka dominated the music scene of the time.

There was cross-pollination with the music of US jazz musos such as Duke Ellington, Billy Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald. Masekela, for example, was given a trumpet which used to be owned by Armstrong. It was a time of a vibrant musical culture and political activism.

The musicians of that era had a choice to both sing insipid love songs and ignore the struggle against apartheid or to use their platforms to help the fight. Masuku and her peers, thankfully, chose the latter.

Parting shot

I met Mama Masuku and was blessed to interview her in 2013 when she attended the National Arts Merit Awards where she performed.

She was still as fiery as ever and commanded the stage. She blazed a trail of glory in an illustrious career in which she ran alongside the likes of South African jazz greats.

One of her last perfomances was at Winnie Madikizela Mandela’s funeral last year. She showed her enduring mettle. She was one of the greats and remains in my view Zimbabwe’s most distinguished musical great.

Last week, we buried one of our greats at West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg in South Africa. Our own National Arts Council director Nicholas Moyo and Albert Nyathi attended the funeral.

I DO not like funerals. I remember trying to avoid attending funerals in my errant youth. I just did not want to know about the drudgery at funerals. The experience depressed me greatly.

There is undoubtedly nothing as morbid as going to see a dead man or woman in a coffin. But I have healed in that regard. I now embrace the opportunity as one of life’s rites of passage. It is sobering in its essence to consider one’s own mortality and to have even a momentary reckoning of one’s legacy. What remains behind when death’s cold finger has tapped our vain shoulders?

Aunty Dot

For Dorothy Masuku, it is a legacy of being a pan-African freedom fighter and an indomitable spirit.

“I want to go to Ghana to see (Kwame) Nkrumah, ndiyekeleni, I want to go to Kenya to see (Jomo) Kenyatta, ndiyekeleni, I want to go to Zaire to see (Patrice) Lumumba …” Thus Aunty Dot sang in one of her songs from the 1960s in the heady days of Africa’s anti-colonial struggle.

Though traditionally the title has not been associated with women, she was an African griot who sang before kings and common people. At her death, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa issued a statement about the jazz chanteuse, composer and recipient of South Africa’s National Order of Ikhamanga and described her as a significant loss to South Africa and Africa’s cultural heritage.

“Another golden voice in the chorus line of our nation has been silenced with the passing of Mama Dorothy Masuku. She belonged to a generation of artistes who transcended boundaries in art and politics long before we coined the concept of globalisation.”

Borderless African queen

That Masuku was born in Bulawayo in 1935 and moved to South Africa and gained fame during the 1950s. She recorded her first hit, Nontsokolo, in 1953 whilst still a 17-year-old schoolgirl.

The famous Iyo Pata Pata followed that song and was later recorded by Miriam Makeba who was to record other of her hits such as Khawuleza. The song depicted the shebeen scene.

But Masuku grew increasingly militant and songs such as Dr Malan decrying apartheid laws brought her into confrontation with the racist South African authorities. Later she was banned and exiled after releasing a song for then Zairean leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961.

Her exile brought her back to Zimbabwe where she remained for 31 years as well as living and working in Zambia as a flight attendant. She was only to return to Zimbabwe in 1980. The firebrand singer could not countenance oppression and human rights abuses. She spoke truth to power.

Her music reflected her pride in her Nguni roots in songs such as Mzilikazi, but she was also broadminded enough to sing classics such as Gona RaMachingura. In Zimbabwe, she worked with members of the Cool Crooners in the 1960s township jazz era.

This is the same milieu which produced the likes of August Musarurwa who penned Skokiaan which was later covered by American jazz icon Louis Armstrong.

Songstress par excellence

Masuku’s great strength was her sass and songwriting ability. This strength was to stand her in good stead in her sunset years in this cut-throat business which favours youth over experience.

I recall meeting her at the offices of the South African Music Rights Organisation (Samro) in Johannesburg in 2009. Of course, Masuku was at Samro to get her royalty cheques from her sizeable catalogue.

I had gone there to register my own work at a time when this country’s economy was in a tailspin. One of the officers at Samro, Lindelwa, upon discovering that I was from Zimbabwe, called Aunty Dot, who was so gracious as to come and greet me. I was in awe of her.

She had an aura of regality and confidence about her. I will never forget her eyes. There was a certain glint in her eyes. You could never forget that about her and, though she was aged, she was still beautiful. She was, by the way, one of the African beauties gracing Drum magazine as one of the showbiz icons in the 1950s and 1960s with the likes of Miriam Makeba and Dolly Rathebe.

The music of the times

The vibe of that era was marabi jazz and penny whistle jive. Sophiatown was the happening place before the forced evacuations by the apartheid regime.

The likes of Spokes Mashiane, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Miriam Makeba and Abigail Khubeka dominated the music scene of the time.

There was cross-pollination with the music of US jazz musos such as Duke Ellington, Billy Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald. Masekela, for example, was given a trumpet which used to be owned by Armstrong. It was a time of a vibrant musical culture and political activism.

The musicians of that era had a choice to both sing insipid love songs and ignore the struggle against apartheid or to use their platforms to help the fight. Masuku and her peers, thankfully, chose the latter.

Parting shot

I met Mama Masuku and was blessed to interview her in 2013 when she attended the National Arts Merit Awards where she performed.

She was still as fiery as ever and commanded the stage. She blazed a trail of glory in an illustrious career in which she ran alongside the likes of South African jazz greats.

One of her last perfomances was at Winnie Madikizela Mandela’s funeral last year. She showed her enduring mettle. She was one of the greats and remains in my view Zimbabwe’s most distinguished musical great.

Last week, we buried one of our greats at West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg in South Africa. Our own National Arts Council director Nicholas Moyo and Albert Nyathi attended the funeral.

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