Africa’s golden girls

Now aged 84 and 81 respectively, the South African talented grandmas will always be treasures that the whole of Africa will forever cherish for their invaluable contributions to the international music industry.

Although they pursued their careers separately, the musicians were, and are still are best friends who teamed up for their music cause on various occasions.

Being of the same age group, Aunty Dot (Masuka) and Mama Africa (Makeba) shared more than just a passion for music but many other aspirations like all other peers.

But it was music and close friendship that bound the two and made them household names and role models to many a female musician.

It was Mama Africa who wrote Aunty Dot’s signature song Pata Pata and the duo also jointly toured the country and abroad on several occasions.

They went on their first joint tour of South Africa in the 1950s when they were still in their early 20s. Indeed young musicians then.

But their potential and expertise was evident from their very primary days in the industry.

They were both inspired by American jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald and at one time they started a show called African Jazz and Variety that also had contemporary jazz greats like Hugh Masekela.

The duo could have broken the world apart with their combined efforts but still, they were trailblazers in their separate careers and today we cannot talk of African music without mentioning their names.

But where did these music greats come from?

According the Afropop music website, Aunty Dot was born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) in 1935. Her father was hotel chef, originally from Zambia, and her mother was Zulu.

The fourth of seven children, Aunt Dot left Zimbabwe for South Africa when she was still 12 years old.

Her move had nothing to do with musical ambitions but she was in poor health, and the family thought the dry southern climate would be good for her.

At St. Thomas, a Catholic boarding school in Johannesburg, Aunty Dot 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 favourite.

It was not long before she realized that great things were happening in the music scene around her as well.

During those days she was invited to audition for a new record label called Troubadour and she impressed at first appearance and got the job.

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, Masuka 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 that would exert a major musical influence on the young Thomas Mapfumo a few years later.

At this point, Masuka’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, Masuka wrote “Hamba Notsokolo,” one of the biggest South African hits of the 1950s, and still a staple in her songbook.

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 Masuka 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, Masuka 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, Masuka 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, Masuka 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, Masuka 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 Masuka’s grandfather trekked in 1875.

In many ways, it marked both a return and a new arrival of Africa’s most venerable singers.

Then there is Mama Africa.

Born in Johannesburg, Mama has a long and dramatic career behind her, both as a singer and human rights campaigner.

The Leopard Man’s Music Guide notes that she was the first vocalist to put African music onto the international map in the 1960s.

She began to sing professionally as far back as 1950 with the Cuban Brothers, and became known across the land with the jazz group Manhattan Brothers, who toured South Africa, the former Rhodesia and Congo up until 1957.

She went on to join the female vocal group, Skylarks, and sang on their disk. In 1959 Mama took on the female lead in the musical “King Kong”, about a boxer who kills his sweetheart and later dies in prison.

The musical, publicised as a “jazz opera”, was a big success in South Africa. To avoid the racist apartheid laws that divided the public, the musical was often performed in universities.

That year an American film director, Lionel Togosin, made a documentary film from South Africa on which Mama collaborated, and wanted her to present the film at the Venice Festival.

She accepted the job and got into hot water with the South African authorities that railed against the negative attention they received through the presentation of the film. While in Italy, Mama decided not to return to South Africa where she got little or nothing in terms of payment for her performances.

This resulted in the South African government revoking her passport and denying her the possibility of ever returning to her homeland. Mama took up refuge in London after the festival and met Harry Belafonte, who helped her to emigrate to the USA. There she built up her career again. She was the first black musician to leave South Africa on account of apartheid, and over the years many others would follow her example.

In America Mama had several hits on the 1960s, among them “Pata Pata”, “The Clique Song”, and the Tanzanian “Malaika”, remaining an active opponent of the apartheid regime in her own country. Also, in the USA there was a civil rights movement growing in the 1960s.

Mama was for some years married to trumpet player and colleague Hugh Masekela, but split from him and in 1968 wed a leader of the black power movement, Stokely Carmichael. This was too much for some of her conservative, white audiences in the USA and she was in trouble with the American authorities.

She found support in Nina Simone and others yet went into exile in Guinea, Africa. She managed to find work outside the USA, and toured Europe, South America and Africa in the 1970s and 1980s.

During those years she often appeared at jazz festivals such as the Montreux and Berlin. In 1987 she participated in Paul Simon’s Graceland project, defending it even though it officially went against the cultural boycott of South Africa.

Mama is African music’s first and foremost world star. She is a pioneer who played her early songs and blended different styles long before anyone even began to talk about “world music”. Her disk production is spread across many companies all over the world – so far and wide that it’s difficult to get a panoramic view of it. But no collection of African music should be without one or more of Miriam Makeba’s recordings.

The two musicians’ biographies speak volumes about their experience and it is apt that they be described as the treasures of African music.

October 2006
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