What Dolly did next

I guess the only thing that can be said is what Bra Hugh said: that there is nothing more to be said except that Dolly Rathebe was about laughter, joy and music.

Sis Dolly Rathebe passed on when nobody expected her to on Thursday last week. The question is: Why did nobody expect her to? She was born, after all, in 1928, which is quite a long time ago. That was between two world wars (fought over the soul of Europe, wars that had nothing to do with Africans, except that Africans were dragged into them willy-nilly and had their collective lives changed forever).

World War II came when Sis Dolly was a mere stripling of some 11 summers, I guess, and ended when she was hitting her stride in her late teens.

The turbulence of the war years turned the whole world upside down — and the jazz people of the black townships of South Africa were no exception. Jazz changed the war, and the war changed jazz. The Duke of Ellington and the Count of Basie, not to mention the sultry, agonised woman known by her slave name of Josephine Baker, turned the chaos of war on its head and brought forth denigrated, symphonic, melodic, crazy hymns of beauty into the world.

Dolly was born into that world. The only thing you can do is to re-imagine what that world was like, and what made her. But, as a joyous woman filled with an inner beauty that ticked like a time-bomb, in spite of the terror and horror that surrounded her early years, and the years that were to come, she became part of the definition of what that world was about.

She inhabited, and was later to be inhabited by, the creative turbulence of Sophiatown and Alexandra township. She took the City of Gold by storm and, like so many of her contemporaries, the storm she created was more or less an accident.

All of this is because of music, that most indefinable of the arts. Peter Rezant, a man of indefinable racial origins in this aggressively racialised land of defined identities, was already a legend when she stepped on to the musical stage. Rezant was playing reorganised versions of black American jazz at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre and all across the country, and was the local version of the Cotton Club to civilised white society.

Dolly would have danced to all of that before she turned 20. But she would also have danced and sung to the rhythms of what made Africa Africa. All of this on the streets of Sophiatown and Alexandra, and much further afield in Bloemfontein and Kroonstad and Potchefstroom, all the way through to the Indian-owned night spots of Durban, where so much was happening, and the shebeens and semi-brothels of Cape Town, an almost off-shore version of urban black South Africa latched on to the mainland by default.

You had to get up on your hind-legs and dance. You had to open your throat and sing. You didn’t necessarily have to talk — talkers and politicians were all around you anyway. But every expression in your body came across as loud as a shout — of indignity, and protest and, as Hugh says, of joy and music and laughter.

Why did black people have the nerve to laugh and sing their way through the 1950s and 1960s? It was funny and desperately sad at the same time. And then there were serious political characters who tried their best to give it a context at all times.

And then there were the gangsters. Dolly had become an icon in her own right when she sprang onto the covers of Drum magazine and on to 78rpm record covers that were flying around the townships in the early 1950s. Like Florsheim shoes and the snap-brim hat made popular by Hollywood actors who made gangsterism fashionable, she was also a fashion statement. So they had to hug her, however thuggish their hug was, into their world.

There was Salinki and Kortboy and Boykie who were running an alternative society with its own rules and regulations in Sof’town and Alex. They rode arrogantly in Packards and Cadillacs in the middle of Johannesburg by day, and caused havoc and love and a sense of freedom in Sophiatown by night. They famously kidnapped Dolly and held her as a sex slave for a weekend or two.

Dolly never said she minded this. She was, after all, part of the people. And the people were expressing their desire for life and some kind of identity.

So she lived. She sang. She laughed, and she made people laugh and shout and be happy. She posed in bikinis on the mine dumps. She slinked in Eduan Naude’s famous dresses in high society. She laughed, and she made people find something to laugh about.

But there was a cost. In the late 1960s she decided to fade away. The pain was starting to take over the laughter.

In the 1970s, Queeneth Ndaba, struggling to hold on to the spirit of Dorkay House, which had inherited the mantle of the Bantu Men’s Social Centre and all the other high-brow and low-brow joints that represented black self-empowerment in the centre of Johannesburg, persuaded Dolly to come out of retirement. And so she started to sing again.

Sis Dolly lived to see the dawn of freedom. She didn’t say much about it. There wasn’t much to say. Except that she, and people like her, were still alive — although a lot of others had also passed on, never to be commemorated except in memory.

So Sis Dolly passed on last week. True to her own spirit, she never let on that she was planning to do this. She just did it.

We howl, because this is part of the passing of the Jazz Age, the true age of African renaissance.

But at the same time we cannot do anything but laugh, as Hugh says, and find another song to sing tomorrow.

Because that is what Dolly did. Sy was double-dollie.

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