by Struan Douglas
Dorothy Masuku was born in 1935 to a Zambian father and South African mother and raised in Zimbabwe. All three nationalities were within her.
Masuku was born to make music. From the age of seven months old, Dorothy’s mother noticed that her daughter could never sit quietly and was always humming. By the age of two, she was already a singer and when relatives came to visit she would perform for them. “Singing was a disease that has no doctor,” Masuka described.
At 12 years old, she left her home in Zimbabwe for school in Johannesburg. The sound of this train journey informed her hit song Hamba Nontsokolo, recorded with the Golden Rhythm Crooners from Zimbabwe in 1952.
This was the first of approximately 30 early hits which were later compiled onto Masuku’s “Hits from the 50s” collection.
Masuku enjoyed a starlit career in the golden 50s era of South African jazz. She travelled with Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz and Variety revue, performed alongside Dolly Rathebe and Miriam Makeba in the African Follies Show with her record sales only second to Bing Crosby’s in sales.
Her songs recognized the everyday realities of urban African life and sent a message of “love, of sadness and of everything,” as she described.
A number of Masuku compositions became part of Miriam Makeba’s repertoire. Makeba sang Into Yam on the film Come Back Africa and the Steve Allen show in 1960. She sang Khawuleza, on her Grammy-winning album, and searing tunes such as Kulala, Teya Teya and Kadeya Deya were sung during her rousing “Guinea Years” performances and recordings.
When Masuku questioned the wrong she saw in the apartheid era through compositions such as Lumumba and Dr. Malan her songs were banned, and in 1961 she was forced into exile.
With the ANC in Malawi, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya, New York and London, Masuku used musical performances to transcend segregation and raise funds for the anti-apartheid struggle.
As she said, “Singing is something else. You can send a message to a billion people in three minutes by singing. Singing speaks louder than any politician in the world.”
Masuku travelled all over Africa with Caiphus Semenya’s production Buwa and came to know Africa like the palm of her hand. “I am a child of the continent,” she said.
Her first full-length album Ingalo was recorded in Zimbabwe in 1981 and on it she sings in Shona, Ndebele and Nyanja.
After Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, she returned to Johannesburg and continued her professional singing career, performing on festival stages and making the albums Pata Pata, Mzilikazi, Lendab and, Nginje, as well as releasing The Definitive Collection.
On Saturday, 23rd February 2019 at the age of 83 Dorothy Masuka passed away peacefully. She was a mother and grandmother.
She has been honored with the 2017 Arts and Culture Trust Lifetime Achievement Award in Music, the National Order of Ikhamanga in Silver 2006, the Afropop Hall of Fame in New York 2002 and an Enduring Icon Award 2012.