Who Was Dorothy Masuka?

South African-Zambian-Zimbabwean jazz singer, Dorothy Masuka, who succumbed to a stroke on Saturday 23rd February 2019 will be laid to rest this Sunday 3rd March 2019 at West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg, South Africa. Masuka was not simply the “jazz singer” many newscasts have labelled her, although she certainly was that too. And she certainly lead a phenomenal life worthy of a serious biopic.

Masuka was born in Bulawayo in then Rhodesia in 1935 in a family that consisted of her father who was a chef, her mother and sister. She often talked about spiritual sources as her inspiration for making good music as her grandmother was a sangoma. Throughout the 1950s, her music went all around South Africa and yonder, but when her music became more serious, the government became threatened. It was the radical spirit of Masuka’s songwriting that led to her long years of exile. Under apartheid black South Africans were notoriously forced to carry a range of documents on their person. Masuka clearly and explicitly identified herself with African nationalist liberation struggles.

Masuka wrote and recorded in Zimbabwe, and also in multiple other African languages in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia. Her work was also performed by other South African artists in exile, notably Miriam Makeba. Because of the fragmented, semi-formal nature of the African recording industry in the 20th Century, no complete discography of all her credits exists, but it is likely the total of her compositions in all African languages exceeds 100.

During her 31 years of exile, she was repeatedly refused entry to South Africa by the apartheid authorities, having been declared persona non grata. She returned only in 1992 and immediately began performing and composing new material, something she continued to do till the end of her life. She recorded four further original albums, as well as releasing a collection of much of her historic material, Hamba Nontsokolo. She was a compelling artist that never failed to erupt standing ovations from her audience wherever she performed.

Sadly, a stroke took out her fighting spirit. May her soul rest in peace.

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