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Interview Dolly Rathebe 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).

When did you see Jim comes to Joburg?

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.

She laughs.

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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