We were having a conversation about the passing of Miriam Makeba, or “Mama Afrika” as many called her with great affection. What can I say about such a woman, such a symbol, such a voice. Everyone everywhere was telling their stories about meeting her, her early times, that zest for life. I had my own story but felt it paled in comparison.
So I began to tell my friend about the Bassline jazz club when it was located in Melville, a suburb in Joahnnesburg not that far away from the SABC. I complete that story here.
I spent one winter a few streets away in a freezing little flat that I’d rented. This explains my frequent visits to the Bassline on those freezing evenings; to escape the cold, y’see. There was even a huge blizzard while I was there that time. But I don’t need excuses to explain my dropping into a jazz club in Johannesburg, having a few beers, and listening to some fantastic musicians. The weather couldn’t keep me away.
I saw the name on the billboard that night: Dolly Rathebe. A few months earlier, I had gone out with one of the SABC crews to get a better idea how they worked. We went to the home and studio of a photographer named Schadeburg. I introduced myself to him and spent the next hour or so talking to the “father of South African photojournalism” about his work, his life, his highs and lows. Dolly’s name came up several times.
Jurgen showed me a lot of pictures of her when she was a big name in SA music. As a black woman, a gorgeous black woman, he told me she was also sought after as arm candy by many bigshot white politicians and policemen too. It was a dangerous world in a dangerous time for someone like Dolly who tread a fine line between being too cozy with the oppressor and too big for her own people. The fact she survived when so many were attacked, killed, or disfigured like Thandi Klaasen, says volumes about Dolly. But that was the past, Schadeburg said. So I was surprised when he told me she was still alive and well, and still singing.
I must have met her before, probably with my friends, Sylvia Vollenhoven or Basil Appollis, at one time or another. That night when Dolly Rathebe hopped up on stage at the Bassline, I recognized her face even if I couldn’t place the time of our meeting. I sat at the bar, nursing a beer, drinking in the music. It was a mixture of township jazz, American jazz and western pop. The musicians were fabulous. the music spellbinding. I decided to re-introduced myself to Dolly after the second set, and just entering that euphoric stage when my shields are going down instead of up (as they should).
We sat there and spoke awhile, in between fans and friends dropping by the table to chat with her and ignore me. I bought her a drink, she bought me one in return, and so on. By the time she rose for the next set, I was smitten and well on the way to stupidity. When she sat down again, there I was. We spoke some more. Then the Mohawk put on his gravest face and explained (in slightly slurred English) that if she, Dolly Rathebe, would be interested… ummm… would she… uh… be interested in marrying him?
Of course, she said. She would love to. But only after the last set.
So I went back to the bar. Dolly Rathebe hopped back onto the stage. It was one fantastic night with a woman who burned up the SA jazz scene during the 40’s and 50’s and could still kick up dust in the 90’s.
Our affair was short, doomed to failure, and fantastic while it lasted.
May she rest in peace.