In the pantheon of nightingales that emerged in the forties and fifties – jazz’s golden age – Dorothy Masuku’s name looms large, second only to blues queen, Dolly Rathebe. Miriam Makeba was the third in line as a singer who was blessed with a vocal artistry and stage charisma that challenged the patriarchal views that women belonged in the home and had no place in the world of entertainment.
Of the three, Masuku was the most prolific and influential composer. A number of her compositions, notably Pata Pata, Kulala, Into Yam’ and Sangoma became Makeba’s songbook and contributed significantly in paving a successful career for Mama Africa on international stages. Masuku’s songs are honest observations about the sufferings of the urban African – the likes of Khawuleza, Mhlaba, Ngihamba Ngedwa, Lendaba, Lumumba and Dr Malan.
An evocatively sad song, Khawuleza relates the story of children warning their beer brewing mothers about police raids. The song was made famous by Makeba after it was included in her incredible 1965 Grammy Award-winning album An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba.
Twenty-two of Masuku’s self-penned township jazz classics appear on a compilation album titled Hamba Nontsokolo & Other Original Hits From The ‘50s released by Gallo. Her 1953 single Nontsokolo was recorded when she was only 18 and remains her most famous composition.
Like some of her compositions which became township standards, Nontsokolo has since been covered by many artists, notably Hugh Masekela on his Revival album.
In her long career Masuku has also collaborated with a list of South African women singers, such as Mabel Mafuya, Mary Thobei, Harriet Oliphant and Ida Sangweni.
Their spirit will be evoked on Sunday when Masuku, Abigail Kubeka and Zenzi Makeba Lee – Makeba’s granddaughter – share the stage during a special tribute performance at the Joburg Theatre in Joburg, South Africa. The event promises to be memorable.
“The combination of the fabled singing prowess of both Dorothy Masuku and Abigail Kubeka, along with Zenzi Makeba Lee, will give the audience a first-hand measure of the power of their voices and, consequently, of South African women, that will evoke memories and the spirit of the late Mama Africa instantly,” said Nelson Lumumba Lee, grandson and director of the Miriam Makeba Foundation.
He added one of the aims of the event was to raise public awareness about the projects and programmes of the foundation, the Makeba Centre for Girls and the Miriam Makeba Youth Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Midrand-based centre is a home for destitute and orphaned girls. The orchestra identifies young talent across the country and teaches aspiring musicians. Its other aim is to preserve the musical legacy of the late singer through teaching some of the songs she made famous.
The orchestra is scheduled to perform on Sunday, alongside children from the centre, St Stithians Choir and the Johnny Mekoa Youth Orchestra.
The evening will also be marked by the presentation of Lifetime Achievement Awards by the South African Department of Arts and Culture to Masuku and Kubeka. The latter is set to be honoured with another Lifetime Achievement Award by the Southern African Music Rights Organisation later this year during the annual Wawela Music Awards.
Born in 1941 in Orlando, Soweto, Kubeka was chased from the house by her mother after she refused to honour mom’s wish for her to become a nurse. Her mother didn’t regard showbiz as a field that could guarantee a future and she was upset when Abigail chose music.
It was a legitimate concern. Being a nurse or teacher carried some prestige among Africans in the 1950s and subsequent decades. Music offered very little earning power for the majority of black performers, particularly female singers. But Kubeka was inspired by top female performers of the time, such as blues queens Emily Kwenane, Rathebe, Thoko Thomo and Makeba and she was determined to follow in their footsteps.
She was performing at a concert in Kilnerton, Pretoria in the late 1950s when a talent scout noticed her singing abilities and arranged with her to work with the Huddleston Jazz Band – named after Anglican priest Father Trevor Huddleston and with a line-up that included Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa and Zakes Mokae.
After a show which featured Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers she was invited by Makeba to join the Skylarks, an all-female vocal group of four singers led by Makeba. These were Mary Rabotapi, Mummy Girl Nketle, Nomonde Sihawu and Helen van Rensburg.
The Skylarks occasionally featured bass singer Sam Ngakane and broke new ground with music that was characterised by a blend of African jazz and marabi.
By the late 1950s, the singing ensemble was the hottest in the business. They were the toast of the black community.
Kubeka’s next big move was a part in the King Kong jazz opera as one of the shebeen girls and Makeba’s understudy in the same production.
When Makeba and other prominent artists left the country from 1960 following the Sharpeville massacre, Kubeka chose to stay and launched a successful career as a cabaret singer, stage performer and actress.
But she also toured the world and performed to critical acclaim in prestigious venues, alongside superstars such as Percy Sledge, Eartha Kitt and Monk Montgomery.
Her string of awards includes Woman of our Time Award (1986) and Mbokodo Awards 2012’s Enduring Icon Award as joint recipient alongside Masuku and Letta Mbulu.
The Joburg Theatre show follows hot on the heels of the hugely successful Market Theatre production Divas of Kofifi, a musical tribute to Masuku, Thandi Klaasen and Kubeka.
'Sisters in Song: The Legendary Mamas & Musical Icons – a musical celebration of Women’s Day' will start at 3pm on Sunday, August 28 in the Joburg Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa.