A Homage to South African Women in Jazz.

Makeeda SwanContributors

In this second instalment of the Women’s Month blog series, we take a look at some of the women who shaped the jazz scene here in South Africa. In a country overflowing with talented women, narrowing down the spotlight to fit into one blog post alone was no easy task. But the women featured here- Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks, Dolly Rathebe and Dorothy Masuka- were true pioneers, not only in their innovative music but also as beautiful, shining lights during such dark and troubled times.

Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba was a revolutionary artist who used her voice to shape history. As swing dancers, her legacy as “Mama Africa” should resonate deeply within our hearts, as it draws parallels to the unity and joy we find on the dance floor.

Miriam Makeba, born in 1932 in Johannesburg, South Africa, was an artist whose harmonious voice and compelling performances transcended borders, much like the way swing dancing breaks down cultural barriers and brings people together. With each note she sang, Makeba carried a message of hope, resilience, and unity that resonated with people around the world.

Makeba’s musical journey began at a young age when her unique voice drew attention. In the 1950s, her partnership with the Manhattan Brothers catapulted her into the spotlight. Her solo career flourished, and her enchanting melodies fused indigenous South African sounds with international influences, creating a unique genre of her own.

As Makeba’s fame grew, so did her commitment to justice. While her music charmed audiences across the globe, she used her platform to shine a light on the brutal realities of apartheid. A noteworthy example of this is her heartfelt address to the United Nations Special Committee, which added momentum to the anti-apartheid movement.

One of Makeba’s most renowned hits, Pata Pata, became a global sensation, capturing the rhythm of the African soul and inspiring dance floors everywhere. The song’s infectious melody carried a profound message of joy amidst struggle, showcasing Makeba’s ability to infuse activism into her music.

Makeba’s return to South Africa after 31 years of exile was a triumphant homecoming. Her presence during the nation’s transition to democracy was a testament to her unwavering commitment to justice. Her voice, which had transcended continents, now echoed the dreams of her fellow South Africans.

Miriam Makeba’s legacy is etched into the annals of history. Her music remains a timeless testament to the power of art as a catalyst for change, a concept that deeply resonates with our swing dance community’s mission and values. As “Mama Africa,” she continues to inspire artists and activists, embodying the spirit of a nation’s struggle and the triumph of its people. Swing dance endevours to embody the spirit of unity and celebration of diversity, and this is why it’s so important to pay homage to the artists, like Makeba, who set the wheels of change in motion.

In addition to Pata Pata, Makeba is also famous for the song entitled The Click Song, which you can listen to here, further showcasing the diverse and captivating range of her musical contributions.

The Skylarks

The Skylarks were an all-woman South African ensemble, founded by Miriam Makeba in the 1950s. At one time they were the most popular black singing band in the country. Emerging from the lively townships that brim with creativity, each member of the Skylarks nurtured their craft from a young age. They were a remarkable musical group that embraced and celebrated our rich South African cultural heritage by mixing jazz with more traditional local music, resulting in a new, unique genre of African Jazz. Comprising the extraordinary talents of Letta Mbulu, Abigail Kubeka, Mary Rabotapi, Sanna Mabusela and Thembi Mathe (among others, who all contributed at different points in time), their music weaves a beautiful story of tradition and modernity. Our swing dance community can truly resonate with this celebration of cultural heritage and musical innovation.

Drawing inspiration from the rhythmic heartbeats of our ancestors, the Skylarks infuse their music with echoes of Isicathamiya, Mbube, and Marabi, taking us on a nostalgic journey through the sounds of our past. Their harmonious melodies pay homage to our roots while embracing the contemporary spirit that unites us as South Africans.

At the heart of the Skylarks’ music beats a message of hope, love, and unity—values that resonate deeply within our swing dance community. Through their soul-stirring performances, they embody the spirit of togetherness, much like our dancers who come together on the dance floor to share moments of joy and connection. Their harmonies, like the universal language of dance, bridge linguistic boundaries, touching every South African heart.

Over the years, the Skylarks received well-deserved acclaim and graced stages worldwide. From prestigious music festivals to intimate community gatherings, their soul-stirring music has touched the lives of many, inspiring cultural pride and celebrating the spirit of Ubuntu.

The Skylarks’ legacy lives on through their timeless songs like Hush and Inkoma Zodwa, which you can listen to here.

Dolly Rathebe

Dolly Rathebe, a name synonymous with grace and talent, was an artist who danced through life. Born in 1928 in Randfontein and growing up in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, she displayed an early passion for performing and singing, which would lead her to become one of the most cherished icons of her time. Rathebe’s captivating voice and charismatic presence left an indelible mark on the nation’s entertainment landscape.

Blessed with a rich and soulful voice, Rathebe found her calling in the world of jazz music, a genre that, like swing dance, thrives on rhythm and improvisation. Her silky-smooth vocals, often described as captivating and unforgettable, earned her a dedicated fan base across the country. Rathebe’s performances at renowned jazz clubs like The Pelican in Orlando West became the stuff of legends, and she soon gained recognition as one of South Africa’s jazz sensations.

Rathebe’s talent was not limited to music; she also ventured into acting with equal prowess. Her silver screen debut in the 1951 film Jim Comes to Jo’burg– the first film to portray urban Africans in a positive light- resonates with the themes of breaking boundaries and embracing diversity. Dolly’s on-screen presence and emotive performances earned her critical acclaim, making her one of the country’s most celebrated actresses in apartheid-era cinema.

Rathebe’s artistry broke down racial barriers in the entertainment industry. As an African woman, she achieved significant milestones during a time when opportunities for black artists were limited. Through her music and acting, she shattered stereotypes and inspired a generation, proving that talent knows no boundaries.

Rathebe’s legacy continues to inspire aspiring artists. Her music and films serve as a testament to the power of artistic expression in shaping society, a concept deeply cherished by our dance community.

Throughout her illustrious career, Rathebe received numerous accolades and honours for her outstanding contributions to the arts. Her impact on South African culture led her to be revered not just as a talented artist but also as an icon of resilience and artistic excellence. Her memory lives on, uniting generations and celebrating the beauty of artistic heritage.

Although  Dolly Rathebe left this world in 2004, her legacy lives on in the hearts of South Africans. Her songs and films are cherished by generations, and her influence continues to resonate with music lovers and film enthusiasts alike. Rathebe remains an eternal symbol of the beauty and power of South Africa’s artistic heritage.

Dorothy Masuka

Dorothy Masuka, born in 1935 in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia) and raised in Johannesburg, was a trailblazing jazz artist who left a significant mark on South Africa’s musical landscape. Her powerful and evocative voice was a conduit for storytelling, conveying themes of love, social injustice, and the pursuit of freedom.

Masuka’s musical journey began at a young age when she discovered her passion for singing and performing. In the 1950s, she moved to South Africa, where she quickly gained recognition for her exceptional talent. Her early compositions, infused with jazz, mbaqanga, and township rhythms, showcased her unique ability to connect with audiences and resonate with their hearts.

Masuka’s music became a source of inspiration and comfort during the oppressive years of apartheid. Her soulful and emotive performances carried messages of hope and resilience, giving voice to the struggles and aspirations of the marginalized communities. She wrote and performed songs like Hamba Nontsokolo, which became anthems of the anti-apartheid movement, uplifting the spirits of those fighting for freedom.

Despite facing exile due to her outspoken stance against apartheid, Masuka continued to use her music as a tool for activism, amplifying the voices of those in need. Her performances at international venues and political gatherings mirror our community’s efforts to use dance as a means of spreading positivity and awareness on a global scale.

Masuka’s triumphant return to South Africa after 31 years in exile aligns with the resilience and unity celebrated within the global swing dance community. Her legacy lives on, much like the enduring spirit of swing dance, as a symbol of hope and progress.

Throughout her illustrious career, Masuka received numerous awards and honors, acknowledging her significant contributions to the arts. She was not only celebrated for her musical brilliance but also admired for her role as a powerful voice in the fight against apartheid.

Her passing in 2019 marked the end of a remarkable era, yet her legacy continues to inspire music enthusiasts and activists.

In addition to Hamba Nontsokolo, Masuka is famous for the songs Lendaba and My Parents, which you can listen to here.

Here she is performing at the Mandela Theatre in 2010.

Thank you to these phenomenal women. May their legacy live on and may we always remember not only their music but also their resilience and social impact. Their persuit of unity, freedom and innovation is something that our swing dance community holds dear.

About the Author

Makeeda Swan

Makeeda is a fun-loving, outgoing, adventurous soul who loves to dance. In addition to swing dancing, she loves all things involving nature, including surfing and hiking, and she is an avid traveller. She is passionate about the film industry and her work both behind and in front of the camera keeps her busy. She also has a beautiful five-year-old daughter who will keep her young forever!