1. An operatic prima donna.

2. A very successful singer of nonoperatic music: a soul diva

here is Part 3 in the South African Soul Divas series. I admit that the singers in these series are not  ‘Soul’ singers like  American counterparts  Aretha Franklin and  Lyn Collins et al.  Their specific way of singing could be described as Jazz,  Mbqanga or Township Soul as well.   But they sing from their souls and have often lived a life of hard times  under the brutal repression and exploitative injustice during Apartheid days.

Despite of all this, a singer like Dolly Rathebe developed her artistic career and became a well respected and established artist. Dolly Rathebe was one of the most prominent singers in the 1950’s,  together with Miriam Makeba and Dorothy Masuka.  She was also an actress who starred in a few movies.

dolly rathebe foto jurgen schadeberg

Dolly Rathebe 1949 -photo by Jürgen Schadeberg

Dolly Rathebe was born in Randfontein in 1928 in South Africa but grew up in Sophiatown which she describes as having been “a wonderful place”. She was discovered around 1948 when a talent scout from Gallo approached her and it wasn’t long before she became a star.  Rathebe became the top jazz and blues singer of her generation and considered so beautiful that a metaphor was coined for her. ‘It’s dolly’ meant ‘it’s wonderful’ and was an abbreviation of the Afrikaans ‘S’Dolly se boude’ (it’s Dolly’s tights).

She rose to fame in 1949 aged 19 when she appeared as a nightclub singer in the movie “Jim Comes To Jo’burg ” by director Jürgen Schadeberg, the first film to portray urban Africans in a positive light.  But despite it’s success, ‘Jim comes to Jo’burg’ also became a scornful metaphor among black intellectuals for all back-to-the-homelands literature. And there was  musical cross-fertilisation between urban and traditional styles. Rathebe scored an early hit with the song ‘Sindi’, a bluesed up version of a neo-traditional concertina tune ‘Good Street’, dedicated to a Sophiatown thoroughfare. The record was taken back to the United States by Sidney Poitier and picked up by Johnny Hodges under the title ‘Something to Put Your Foot to’.

When Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz and Variety show opened in 1954, Dolly appeared and stayed as Herbert’s main attraction for many years. She became an international star when she sang with the Afro-jazz group, the Elite Swingsters in 1964 and one of the first performers to make an impact in black TV drama in the late 1970’s. Her career suffered, like all others, from the intensifying repression of the 1980’s, but in the late 1990’s, she began to tour nationally and internationally again.

dolly rathebe and the inkspots

Dolly Rathebe with The African Inkspots -Unomeva 1954

After Sophiatown was flattened by the Apartheid government in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Rathebe found it more and more difficult to perform, especially after an 8pm curfew was imposed. She moved with her family to Cape Town township, and to survive, ran a shebeen for many years.


Elite Swingsters -Thulandiville 1960

the elite swingsters -soul blues label

here’s a rare instrumental Elite Swingsters -Soul Blues

In 1989 she re-united with the Elite Swingsters to perform in a film that was set in 1950s Johannesburg. In her latter years Rathebe was a leading light in Pretoria’s Ikageng Women’s League. In 2001 she received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the South African Music Awards.

In 2003, at the age of 75, Dolly appeared in a Johannesburg show, Sof’Town, A Celebration!, where she sang “Randfontein”, the story of a drunk miner returning home to find his wife in bed with another man, who is then beaten and chased out.

She was awarded the South African Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for her excellent contribution to music and the performing arts and commitment to the ideals of justice, freedom and democracy in 2004. Dolly Rathebe died on 16 September 2004 from a stroke.

Sharon Katz performs in a legendary house concert at Miriam Makeba’s home on December 26th, 2003 at a party  with Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe & Abigail K


Mabel Mafuya

mabel mafuya & the star queens -iMini label

Mabel Mafuya & The Star Queens -iMini

Mabel Mafuya & The Green Lanterns -Nomathemba 1956

Mabel Mafuya was one of the most popular and prolific vocalists of the mid-to-late 1950’s. Sadly, a year or so after the recording of ‘nomahtemba (a woman’s first name)’, a botched goiter operation badly affected her voice and thereafter her musical career began an inexorable downhill decline. Mabel was cast as one of the ‘Chord Sisters’ in ‘King Kong’ and later traveled with the show to London in 1961. After returning to South Africa, she decided to make a name for herself as an actress.  Musically speaking, Mabel is best remembered today for her novelty hit ‘hula hoop’ but ‘nomahtemba (a woman’s first name)’ is her masterpiece. The song’s narrative of broken ties would have encapsulated the dislocating experience of rural-to-urban migrancy for many township residents. Mabel’s searing vocal delivers the message with a direct conviction and intensity that has almost completely disappeared from any form of modern music.

Nancy Jacobs & Her Sisters -Meadowlands 1955

The rather shy and reserved Nancy Jacobs enjoyed a succesful singing career for a few years in the mid 50’s before she married in Cape Town and retired from public life. Her ‘Sisters’ were in reality her mother and first cousin. “Meadowlands” is one of South Africa’s great evergreens, an instantly recognizable melody with a fascinating history.

Eva Madison -an african lullaby

Eva Madison and the Bertha Gray Singers -An African Lullaby (tula baba)1963

Little is known about Eva Madison and The Bertha Gray Singers but this single published in 1963 features a famous lullaby that mothers use to help their crying babies to relax and then sleep.

Tula Tu Tula baba Tula sana Tul’umam ‘uzobuya ekuseni Tula Tu Tula baba Tula sana Tul’umam ‘uzobuya eku…

7 thoughts on “South African Soul Divas pt 3 Dolly Rathebe, Mabel Mafuya, Nancy Jacobs, Eva Madison

  1. I’ve been surfing on-line more than three hours lately, yet I by no means discovered any attention-grabbing article like yours. It?s pretty worth enough for me. In my opinion, if all site owners and bloggers made just right content as you probably did, the web can be a lot more helpful than ever before.

  2. thank you for this informative page on our beloved divas,,my respect for them is endless…where is mafuya now?

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