Bruce Robinson looks at the life of Dolly Rathebe
The South African jazz singer and actor Dolly Rathebe died on 16 September, aged 76. She was a major figure in the flourishing of South African urban black culture in the 1950s before it was suppressed by the apartheid regime. She made a come-back after its end in the 90s.
Dolly Rathebe became well-known when, aged 19, she starred in the film “Jim comes to Jo’burg”, the first commercial film to deal with urban black lives. She had moved to the Sophiatown district of Johannesburg, one of the only areas where blacks could own property, and blacks and whites could still mix, albeit illegally.
Sophiatown had a vibrant nightlife in which violent gangsters (one of whom became Dolly’s first husband) and jazz played a major role. Alongside the influence of the American jazz of the swing era, and later of bebop, township jazz emerged as a fusion of the US imports with local musical styles such as marabi (the South African equivalent of the blues), kwela (played on penny whistles), and the harmonies of traditional choral styles.
Dolly, with a deep voice she sometimes used to sing wordless improvisations like her inspiration Ella Fitzgerald, became a popular star, appearing with two major jazz groups of the time and on the “African Jazz and Variety” circuit which presented black stars for white audiences. She sang both American and original South African material.
She acted as an example and mentor for slightly younger singers such as Miriam Makeba and Dorothy Masuka. Tragically, relatively little of her work from this period was recorded.
She was also a “pin-up girl”, photographed for Drum magazine, which combined serious writing with photo-journalism and more popular material. The extent of her stardom can be gauged by the incorporation of the phrase “It’s Dolly” (meaning “everything’s fine”) into township speech.
Around 1960, Sophiatown was demolished and its inhabitants forcibly removed from Johannesburg to Soweto. Legal restrictions and curfews made it very difficult for black entertainers to work. Censorship meant jazz was played less on the government broadcasting network, the authorities favouring “native styles” which supposedly presented a less sophisticated picture of black culture. Many musicians went into exile but Dolly Rathebe stayed throughout the apartheid era. She gave up singing, making a living from running a shebeen through the hard years of the 70s and 80s.
She returned to music in 1990, teaming up with the Elite Swingsters, a group she had last played with in the early 60s. With the end of apartheid, she came back to prominence. Mandela called her his favourite singer and she sang at his inauguration as president. She performed in a 2003 show celebrating 50s Sophiatown.
Despite this, she was not well-off. Miriam Makeba came to her aid when she could not pay her phone bill and organised several benefits for Dolly. Instead of keeping the money, she spent it on building a community centre for the elderly in the village where she lived near Pretoria.
Determined to continue performing until she died, Dolly Rathebe was one of those who kept alive the music of a particularly important piece of musical history which apartheid had threatened to destroy.