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In the interview with Dolly Rathebe by Can Themba
"The first and most exciting man in my life, dear Can, was my father. I can’t imagine any man having a greater influence on me. I simply worshipped the man, but, like all other things considers sacred, he didn’t last long. After his death, men didn’t seem the same to me; they seem to have lost that manly tang, that rough, tough masculinity that makes men so adorable. Nowadays, men have become catty, peevish, gossipy and mean; women haven taken to wearing pants."
So say 26 year old Dolly Rathebe, just about Africa’s most famous and exciting woman torchsinger. And yet she is not Dolly Rathebe at all. She was born Josephine Malatsi. That’s her real name. When Dolly was still at school she had a friend whose name was Dolly Rathbe. Our Dolly loved her so much that she just took over her name and called herself Dolly Rathebe. And that is how the world came to know her. This Dolly Rathebe—the real one—is none other than Eileen Dolly Rathebe, the daughter of Mr. J. R. Rathebe. She later went to Fort Hare, where she won the B.Sc. degree. She is now married to medical student Edward Makbene, who is studying at Witwatersand University. The film star Dolly Rathebe just took over her friend’s name for the fun of it. But back of it all was the uncertainty Dolly felt about conditions at home. Things were beginning to bust up. And at school Dolly was a tomboy. (But she was fond of boys!) She looked at life from the male point of view and seemed to have a quarrel with her Maker for creating her female. At one time the reverend father of St. Cyprian’s, Sophiatown, where Dolly schooled, wanted someone to go u the tower and release the hammer of the bell that had got caught. Without hesitation Dolly clambered up the tower and loosened the hammer. The boys still talk of the “bird’s eye view” they got on that occasion. But she was smart. Always trim and neatly dressed, she looked as if she came from a very good and decent home. Suddenly, however, her parents died within a short time of each other, and Dolly had to face a hard, cruel world alone. She discovered that she had a fairly good voice, mellow and husky and she toyed with the idea of show business. First she started with that old theatre of African jazz, the Street. At that time Sophiatown was different from what it is now. It looked more or less like a country dorp. People were still planting peach and apricot trees in their backyards. In fact, one of Dolly’s great pastimes was to pinch peaches from the backyards of other people. And when she and her young friends had made a good haul they would go to Makouviei‐a waste dump just outside Sophiatown, near Waterval—make a feast of it, and start jitterbugging. Jitterbug held the place then that is held by jive now. They would hop around and kick their legs out to the rhythm of some catchy tune. It is about his time that Dolly discovered that she had a way of stitching a tune to the rhythm of their dancing. Of course, nobody at that time thought that Dolly had the voice to coo the blues through the hearts of a thousand stage goers. To her friends she was just a boyish little kid who talked gruffly and sang just as gruffly the hits that went by.
But all agree that she was a naughty child, “very, very impossible,” as one of her teachers describes her. She was fond of pulling chairs from under other children, putting nails or drawing pins on their sitting places, attaching “Kick Me” notices to their behinds and she got a great thrill from watching their pained reactions. Still, at this time she did not consider boys as lovers. She thought of them and treated them as pals. Oddly enough, she rather liked them. She liked their rough‐riding, rollicking sense of fun. She gamboled with them, pushed them around, got pushed around, played the African version of hide and seek called Blikmampatte with them. Somehow in this wild young life she met Jeff. He was the direct opposite to Dolly. Quiet, dignified, halting of speech, shy, studious, well‐shaved. But they fell in love. That was Dolly’s earliest crush. She loved him with a wild, reckless abandon.
“Jeff had something, Can. He represented everything that in my secret moments I dreamed, hoped, yearned to become. I should have known that I wasn’t made like that. For me life has always been too raw, too rough, too full of fun and trigger-quick happiness. And I have little time for gushing, sentimental spurts in human affairs. I have learned early enough to be tough and grabbling about the things I want from life. But Jeff. . . Jeff. . . dearest Jeff. . .
Unfortunately Jeff was just a flitting lightning flash. Sophiatown has never been a comfortable home for sweet easy love affairs. The strong man filibuster met Dolly as she was going home from ____ For a time it was thrilling to be a strong‐man’s moll. The other girls envied her, the other men laid off, and she could go to shows and movies when she liked, unmolested, uninterfered with. But too soon it began to pull. Dolly discovered that many people she would have liked to accept her began to look askance at her. It wasn’t quite the thing to be known as a gangster’s girl. Moreover, Hasie was beginning to become jealously possessive. She couldn’t even talk to other men, and Dolly who loved life and the dynamics of vital men, started to feel stifled. But it wasn’t easy to break away from a strongman, least of all a touchy guy like Hasie.
It had to take death—swift, brutal bloody death‐to slit the unhappy love affair. Like all strong‐men, Hasie had made many enemies. One afternoon he went with a handful of friends of Alexandra on a nicetime spree. They had more than a couple of drinks and Hasie started throwing his weight around. That gave his enemies just the break they wanted. They staged a quarrel and a fight broke out. Hasie got stabbed and died even before he got back home. That released Dolly from her affair with him.
Interview Dolly Rathebe by Struan Douglas (from the Story of SA Jaz Volume One) : Grahamstown festival 1999
We had Dorothy from Zimbabwe. Miriam came from Pretoria to Sophiatown. We had the Harlem Swingsters, we had Thandie Klaasens. Those are great singers from Sophiatown. We used to listen to records and go to the cinema's and see American films, the Louis Armstrong's and Ella Fitzgerald's, those people made us to be. They inspired us a lot because listening to them we would imitate. Going to a movie today to see an American film, the following day is just like that. Going to see 'A street with no name.' The following day you see a guy eating an apple with background, we were imitating, but it made us stars. I sing like Dolly, not like Ella but I used to listen to that kind of singing and copy all of that. I used to listen to people like Hoagy Carmichael, the pianist's,"Stardust," 'Things I said for you,' originally by Vilmer Middleton. That was a black American women. The labels were still there. Those were the days.
Where did you play?
We would sing at parties at weddings. You would do your washing and you would sing. You would see your mother doing the washing and singing and you would copy her. It is in the blood.
Thandie Klaasens said she would sing at Sis Petty's place?
Yes, Petty Nine Steps. We lived for music. The apartheid couldn't touch us because we lived for music. They would arrest you and you would sing. That is how we overcame the apartheid regime. I love my music. I will die singing. They bust me up. They locked me up for night pass and what and special and wat nog. En daar ek kom and sing jou moer af.
Lot of laughter … I thought I was just chatting to you. You must be careful what you say! Oh ja...
Jazz Jazz Jazz all the way. We had great pianists like Sol Klaaste, Gideon Nxumalo. We had Kippie Moeketsi, Mackay Devashe. He was from Orlando. We used to get to Sophiatown. We used to meet there, it was a get together there. The guys from Drum magazine used to be in Sophiatown. We would go to shows and come back and in the evenings we would get into some Shebeens there. It was nice. Evading the police and all that we would get to some of these shebeens and sit till two or three in the morning and we were from a show. Our shows were from 8pm to 4am in the morning because during that time you were keeping away from the police. There was a curfew that no blacks move around after 9pm. The show would last till 4am in the morning because if you leave there before 4am you are in trouble. You land up in jail. If someone is missing you know he or she must be in jail.
We had some problems in the township. You know the police were always there. One thing is we used to attend school. Schools were the first priority. We would go to school. During the day you would see no kids around the township. I attended St Cyprians school where Father Huddleston was. It was a missionary school. There were some other schools there but I think St Cyprians was the best. People like Dr. J'bowa, Dr. Mbeka, Dr. Theba … education education education, we were off to school time and again. We wanted to go and learn. I left school at standard six. Standard Six was like Standard Ten. Standard Seven we used to call Form one or JC. JC; you could get a certificate for teaching and being a nurse. That was Standard Seven. Today you can't. You must pass your matric and all that. In our time it was the Royal readers. There was no maths. That was our maths. 2 x 2 is 4, 3 x3 is 6.
Today my kids ask me mother this and that and I say quickly, 'don't forget I am a royal reader.' They didn't used to teach us maths, but this maths of ours in the 40's and 50's was the best. We had the best education but after that came the bantu education. It started trouble because how could you learn maths in tswana? That started all the trouble gradually until it came to the 1970's where the kids were masterminded to learn Afrikaans. In our time we were still under the common wealth until we became a republic but before that we were okay. We had no problem in schools. In Sophiatown we started learning Afrikaans so much that we had to slang it. Instead of saying 'How are you?' or 'Hoe gaan dit?' you say, 'Heita, Hoesit my bra!' or 'Daai's my cherrie,' which means 'That's my girlfriend.' It was not straight Afrikaans we used to slang it. It was good. It was alright. Today when we talk to people from Sophiatown it is just 'Hoe daar,' 'Dolly Rathebe.' That's how we used to greet one another. That's xnaa man, ek gaan toin toe.' 'I am going to town.' 'Ek gaan xnaa slaap.' That means 'I am going to rest.' We used to slang. Not that we were tsotsi's, no. It is just that we liked the Americans. With the Americans it is not straight English. “You know what I am telling you man?” We used to slang our Afrikaans.
Were women facing different struggles to the men?
No, we were in the same boat. We were together there. We were the vocalists. Without them we couldn't. The guys were there, they were very good And myself and Thandi Klaasens we used to have sessions on Tuesdays at the Odin Cinema in Sophiatown. On Sunday afternoons we would have jazz sessions at the Odin Cinema. People were just combined in music.
Letta Mbulu's parents discouraged her from music. They expected women to be a teacher or a nurse?
Letta was from Orlando. “Orlando was a baai stuywe plekkie,” you know. It was not like Sophiatown. Alright there was that, I remember now. When I started with my film and singing, I had a boyfriend and the mother said he must not move around with me as musicians or stars are sluts. It is not true. It doesn't mean that because we are musicians we are prostitutes. No. Some old people are only realising now that their kids nearly missed out because they were just imagining that because you are a singer you are cheap, meanwhile it was not like that.
The film you starred in, 'Jim comes to Joburg' ...
I made that. I was the first African film star. I was discovered at a picnic, having a jol and having a good time. I had a beautiful voice and used to sing my heart out. I didn't realise there was a talent scout there who just said, 'Oh, what's your name?' I told him. He said there is an audition for a film. We didn't know about making films and things like that. We would go and watch them, but you appearing in one was so funny. Eventually I went to the audition and got the part. There were a lot of people there. I just sang beautifully. I was still tiny and lekker skaam and I was chosen to be the leading lady in this film. There were little odds and ends where I was sometimes arrested for night pass. I went to a mine dump with Jurgen Schaderberg to go and take pictures for Drum. I was arrested for immorality act. There Jim Bailey had to come and take us out of jail because it was not true. You had no say, you had no time to explain. They mess you up. You must just follow the police. But, deep down we knew that we were going to keep on singing and the Here is daar vir musiek (the heavens are there for music).
At the premiere in Johannesburg in the real Bioscope I had to say a few lines. That was the night everybody was there. I used to be very shy but I would sing. At the audition of Jim comes to Joburg I was dressed in takkies and just a small shirt, just an ordinary girl from the township. And the women who were there were dressed to kill. They were older than me. I was a little girl, and I just started singing, “I lost my sugar in Salt Lake City. Oh, what did I go there for, I should have stayed out in New Orleans.” The director said, 'That's the woman, wow this girl can sing'. And ahh, that is when I made it. I was 18 or 19. That was the beginning, but I have never kept my head high, I have always kept a low profile and mixed with the people I grew up with because I knew what I was because of them. I still maintain it is because of my followers that I was made to be a star.
Why did you not choose to go to exile?
I have got a belief of ancestry. I have got no parents and I feel that whenever I am in trouble my mother... I was very close to my mother. When she died I thought it was the end of the world. I overcame all this because I have got this singing. I have progressed, I went on, I never looked back, I never gave up. Some people when they are down and out and they have nobody around them, then they go down the drain. I stood up. I was time and again dragged into the mud by the regime but I would come out of that hopeful that I would make it. Till today I feel that when I get to that mic, I am not afraid of anybody and I know that I am going to make it. My music is my mother and father and my music is my life.
When did you leave Sophiatown?
When they mowed it down. That was the place where I was born.
Then you went to Cape Town?
Yes, Cape Town. I could see all the other musicians going down the drain. They were frustrated, we could not go to the City Halls anymore. We were banned. No more in town. There was a curfew, people we were being arrested. Things were bad you know. I thought no. Our musicians were starving, there were no jobs. Then a friend of mine said, 'Why don't you come to Cape Town?' I said, 'Okay.' She didn't tell me. When I got there she said, 'I think you won't be leaving here again'. She was a shebeen queen. She is late now. She said, 'Come and live with us and see what you can do. You can't live in Johannesburg. There is no money, there is no work'. I said, 'But I am a singer by profession and she said 'Hey just put that aside for a while. Here's a little room. Start selling your liquor.' And I flourished. From one room to two rooms to four rooms and I made it. I have got myself a beautiful house in Pretoria. I took the money from the shebeen! Had I not come to Cape Town I would have been dead.
Was that in Stellenbosch?
Near Elsies Rivier.
I used to work for Jim Bailey …
He came to my place in Cape Town, he came to my shebeen. It was so famous, everyone from Joburg, the musicians would go via there. It was a big place and I would accommodate some of them. Some would stay there and go to their shows and come back again. A short coloured guy from District Six, Jacky Heyns, he brought Jim Bailey to have some drinks and then they left.
Why are the women running the shebeens?
If a man runs the shebeen, it doesn't prosper. Get a women to run it. We women know how to entertain people. You men are too tough, you are too hard. Women know just how to handle them. Shebeens are the best run by women. You nurse your customers, you must be nice to your customers. They say, 'Sis D can I have a cold beer?' You the men say, “It is cold enough wa wa wa.' You can't. The customers want comfort.
Did you sing?
No. It shocked a lot of people who saw me on TV. I did get some phone calls, 'Sis Dolly ons het jou gesien op TV.' People didn't know me in Elsies Rivier. And recently I was with Dali Thambo, 'People of the South.' The phone calls I got from Cape Town from the coloured people who used to drink at my place, 'Hai Dolly ons het you gesien op TV, hai here jou lyk so mooi.' (Dolly we saw you on TV you look so pretty.) I was a shebeen queen there, but I was always nice and I know those Cape Tonians. I miss them. When a skollie comes from the jail, 'As hey van die tronk af kom,' and he comes to my place and he tells me he has just come out of jail, I make him feel at home. When I left Cape Town they missed me.
I went to Joburg to start singing with Kippie Moeketsi, it was TV 3. I even took him to go and stay at my place. I loved Kippie. He was the Charlie Parker and at his home he was not looked after. I took him to stay at my place. I had got quite a big and comfortable place. We got him a job in some nightclub somewhere in Klipgat to play there. He was coming on okay but because I am strict, he must eat, he must do that and then he had to go and play in Johannesburg and he didn't come back again. I really liked Kippie very much. He was the greatest. We missed people like Mackay Devashe. We haven't got musicians anymore. I always look around at who can play piano for me now. Today we have the Don Laka's and the Moses Molelekwa's. They are covered. But before we used to get anyone to come and play with you. Nxumalo or whoever pianist you can get. But today pianists are very scarce. When you want one, you find that he is playing in a band. There are very few. In that period there were lots of musicians. There would be a big show and I would want to sing and then they would say, 'Okay Dolly go and sing'. We would go to Durban with the Manhattan brothers and Miriam Makeba's, Sol Klaaste's, Big bands, Harlem Swingsters, Jazz Maniacs, The Inkspots. We had all these groups. I don't know why people have to die like this. We don't have any musicians anymore. That is why these little kids with the kwaito's and whatever; they are taking over. We must be careful, jazz is here to stay. Mbaqanga is here to stay. We are the pioneers, we are the leaders, this is here to stay.
Maybe we can look forward to another wealth period of musicians?
They should follow their culture. They should not go the American way all the time. Let them keep their culture. We have kept our culture throughout for all these years. Now we have got the African sound. That is our culture. The Americans play their thing. When you go to the States and play this African music, they love it. But going there and going to sing like Michael Jackson you wont make it. But if you go there and sing mbaqanga, they love it because that is our culture. Let the kids do their thing where we tell them time and again, keep to your culture, do your mbaqanga, dress African, do your thing. Don't do the American thing. Africa is big. This is where music comes from. The sound the drum everything is from Africa.
Are we gaining our identity back?
Let the kids take over from us. They mustn't go the American way. They must take from us and get it on. We leave this to them. Their heritage for tomorrow. Let them take over from us and keep the culture. We have got a short way to go. They have still got a long way to go. If I go tomorrow who is going to sing my stuff. They must take over a little bit.
Where do you play?
We have toured a lot from France to Senegal and around to Sun City. We move around a lot. I love music and I thank God and when one day I have to leave I hope I do that on the stage.
I fall dead on the stage. I live for music. People are so old and gone but you see an old man playing his sax … tape cuts out
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Drum images of Dolly
JUL1955 - Jazz on Wheels! - The morning train from Johannesburg to Durban was turned into a hep train by the Jazz Parade troupe as it swung its way to the coast to jazz up the fans in Durban with singing, dancing, and extra hot cheese-cake by Dolly Rathebe! Came Saturday afternoon and the troupe's first performance at a matinee in the City Hall. The hall was now packed with paying ears who came to listen. and what a show it was! The whole troupe put their everything in it; so much so that the second performance that evening was packed out. Four hundred people were turned away. (Photograph by Drum photographer)
PERSONALITY:1956 - Union of South African Artists - Township Jazz on tour. Dorothy Masuka (Masuku) Louisa Emannuel and Dolly Rathebe and some onthers from the troupe. We do not have the original text, it looks like the national tour of the Union of SA Artist through South Africa, they travelled by train. (Photograph by Drum photographer)
Drum images of Dolly by Bob Gosani
JUL1955 - Jazz on Wheels! - The morning train from Johannesburg to Durban was turned into a hep train by the Jazz Parade troupe as it swung its way to the coast to jazz up the fans in Durban with singing, dancing, and extra hot cheese-cake by Dolly Rathebe! (Photograph by Bob Gosani)
JUL1955 - Jazz on Wheels! - The morning train from Johannesburg to Durban was turned into a hep train by the Jazz Parade troupe as it swung its way to the coast to jazz up the fans in Durban with singing, dancing, and extra hot cheese-cake by Dolly Rathebe! Not all songs sung by the troupe on the train were jazzy. Mavis Roach and the male star, Gene Williams, settled down to one of the nostalgic numbers sung on train journeys, like ' Sentimental Journey. (Photograph by Bob Gosani)
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