Dorothy Masuka

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Biographical information

Synopsis:

Musician and Singer, exiled person

First name: 
Dorothy
Last name: 
Masuka
Date of birth: 
03-September-1935
Location of birth: 
Zimbabwe
Date of death: 
23 February 2019
Location of death: 
Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa

Dorothy Masuka was born and raised in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), in 1935. Her father was originally from Zambia, and her mother, Liza Mafuyani, was originally from Natal (now the Province of KwaZulu-Natal).

Her maternal grandmother had been a sangoma. Masuka spoke later of the spiritual sources of inspiration for her songs that often came to her in dreams. She would immediately sing them to somebody else in the house, so that elusive memory was captured.

Masuka moved to live with her aunt in South Africa in 1947, aged 12 and was enrolled at St Thomas Convent School in Johannesburg. There, she joined the school choir and her talent was immediately spotted.

A talent scout discovered her when she sang in a school concert and immediately she signed up at Troubadour Records. By the time she was sixteen, Masuka had become a top recording star and after running away from school several times, she was released. She left for Johannesburg by train and it was during this journey that she composed the song Hamba Nontsokolo that launched her career as a professional musician and has since been regarded as a classic in South Africa. 

During her teens, Masuka composed and recorded close to 30 singles, several of which achieved major hit status. Her status as top pin-up and glamour girl in South Africa soon started to pose as a challenge to the likes of Dolly Rathebe, and she became the principal star in Alf Herbert’s African Jazz and Variety show. A lot of Masuka’s performances were as a soloist accompanied by close-harmony groups and other big bands that featured in the 1950s. By composing her own songs that were inspired by events occurring in the South African townships in the 1950s, she provided a lot of insight into socio-political issues of township life. It was as result of this commentary that she left South Africa abruptly. It was the radical spirit of Masuka’s song writing that led to her long years of exile.

Two of her other songs, Dr Malan (“…has difficult laws”), named after Prime Minister, DF Malan, who lead the National Party with its policy of apartheid, to power in 1948, and  Lumumba  (speculating about who murdered the Congolese anti-colonial leader, Patrice Lumumba so infuriated the South African police’s notorious Special Branch that they seized and destroyed the master tapes. No copies can now be found.

In 1961 she travelled to Malawi and Tanzania and through her musical talents she became the champion of the independence cause in Africa. She then travelled to London and stayed in Kensington, but people in the United Kingdom (U.K.) were not interested in African music. She performed whenever possible and played at the London Palladium and at Wimbledon, after this stint she returned to Zimbabwe. Masuka’s life was threatened while living in Zimbabwe as a result of her political affiliations. She fled to Zambia. Her work was also performed by other South African artists in exile, notably Miriam Makeba. No complete discography of all her credits exists, but it is likely the total of her compositions in all African languages exceeds 100.

In Zambia Masuka’s musical career took a backseat and she worked as an airhostess, while raising a family. After sixteen years in exile she returned to Zimbabwe in 1981, after the country attained its independence.

She became a professional singer once again and only returned to South Africa in 1992, after the release of Nelson Mandela.

On 23 February 2019, Dorothy Masuka passed away in Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa, due to ill health.


References:
• Ansell, G. (2019). Dorothy Masuku: Africa has lost a singer, composer and a hero of the struggle  from The Conversation, 25 February 2019 online. Available at    https://theconversation.com/dorothy-masuku-africa-has-lost-a-singer-composer-and-a-hero-of-the-struggle-. Accessed on 26 February 2019

Last updated : 26-Feb-2019

This article was produced by South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011

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