Dorothy Masuka: “Ba Zali Bami (My Parents)” (MATA 1063/NB2 / Troubadour AFC 115, 1953)
A little jazz ‘n’ jive from southern Africa today. Dorothy Masuka was born in Bulawayo, a railroad town in what was then Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe. In the 1940s and 50s, Bulawayo actually had a strange and cool jazz scene that featured fairly large bands of horn players. Hugh Tracey recorded Cold Storage Band, Los Angeles Orchestra, Bulawayo Sweet Rhythms, Chaminuka Band, De Dark Brownies, The Dick Ncube Trio, and Umtali Chipisa Band during some of his many recording trips through southern and central Africa—they’re collected on an SWP Records release called Bulawayo Jazz that I highly recommend.
Masuka was born in 1935, and probably experienced some of the early rumblings of that scene. In 1947, her family moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, where she attended a Catholic boarding school. Her father was Zambian, and her mother was Zulu, but she sings most of her songs in Ndebele, a language descended from Zulu and spoken in two major dialects primarily in northeastern South Africa and southern Zimbabwe.
Masuka was a talented singer, and had a successful audition with a South African record company called Troubadour while she was still in school. When Masuka was 16, she left school and went to the coastal city of Durban to become a singer with The African Ink Spots, a group led by Philemon Mogotsi. Thing is, her parents and the school hadn’t been told she was leaving, and she was apprehended and returned to school.
It was a temporary setback. When she escaped a second time and headed back to her hometown of Bulawayo, her parents relented and the school made no attempt to bring her back. She joined a group called the Golden Rhythm Crooners, then returned to Johannesburg and spent the rest of her teens singing and establishing herself as a performer and songwriter, touring with her hero, Dolly Rathebe, and gaining fame with a handful of appearances on magazine covers.
She recorded “Ba Zali Bami” in 1953 (most likely—it could have been a year earlier or later), and while it’s not her most important recording (we’ll get to that), it is by some measure her most infectious, in my opinion. I really wish I could publish the name of that saxophonist, but it appears to be lost to history.
Masuka was good friends with Miriam Makeba, and the two of them each caught the ire of South African censors more than once. The Special Branch investigated her and banned her single “Dr. Malan,” for its line “Dr. Malan has difficult laws.” D.F. Malan was Prime Minister of South Africa from 1948 to 1954 and was one of the major architects of the Apartheid policy that held sway there until 1994.
When she wrote a song for Patrice Lumumba, the murdered leader of the Congolese independence movement, in 1961, the Special Branch wasted no time raiding Troubadour, destroying the master and attempting to destroy every distributed copy of the song. She was in Bulawayo at the time and wouldn’t return to South Africa for three decades. Even her original home in exile, Zimbabwe, became untenable during the Ian Smith years, and she left for Malawi and Tanzania, only to return in 1980, when Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain and Robert Mugabe was elected as the first Prime Minister of the country’s post-minority rule era.
She finally made it back to South Africa in 1992, as Apartheid crumbled. She was very active in the 1990s, recording several albums and touring, and she’s still active today.