Two African Musical Giants RIP: Dorothy Masuka & Simaro Lutumba

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This week we remember two African musicians who died recently. They might not be well-known here in the U.S., but both were legendary artists in African music.

Dorothy Masuka (1935-2019) passed away in February in her Johannesburg home at the age of 83. I used to frequently feature her version of the famous South African song “Pata Pata” from a 1991 Mango Records CD. You probably know Miriam Makeba’s more famous version of the song—first with penny whistle jive master Spokes Mashiyane and later with her own band. However, it was Makeba who adapted Masuka’s earlier version of this anthemic South African classic. Masuka’s other songs were likewise famous and covered by prominent musicians such as the late Hugh Masekela.

Masuka was born in 1935 in what was then Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and moved to Johannesburg in 1947 for health reasons. Her Zambian father worked as a chef and her Zulu mother owned a restaurant. She started singing in the 1940’s in the then-popular tsaba-tsaba style, and briefly quit school to tour with a popular township band called African Inkspots. Masuka’s songs first became famous in the mid-1950’s, a few years before Miriam Makeba rose to fame with her first band, The Skylarks. As such, Masuka, though less known, was the first black female artist to become famous throughout South Africa and Zimbabwe. 

Masuka’s success also coincided with the rise of apartheid in South Africa, and she addressed racism in many of her songs. She denounced Daniel Malan, one of the early architects of apartheid, in her song “Dr. Malan,” and in 1961 recorded “Lumumba,” a song that decried the assassination of Congo’s first democratically elected president, Patrice Lumumba. Her activism led to a three-decade-long exile from South Africa, and she worked with the African National Congress and other organizations to fight apartheid. She continued to sing while working as a flight attendant for 15 years and finally returned to South Africa in 1992 as apartheid fell. In 2006, former South African president Thabo Mbeki granted Masuka the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver, a highly-regarded award reserved for artists of exceptional merit.

Masuka performed and recorded into her 80’s, but a stroke in 2018 obliged her to retire. Her final album, Nginje, was released in 2017. Here she is last year in a concert memorializing the late Hugh Masekela, who had just passed away. I love the South African jive-style dancing and beautiful choral singing typical of South African music.   

Simaro Lutumba (1938-2019), a top Congolese rumba artist, has just died at the age of 81. Lutumba was a member of Congo’s most famous orchestra, Franco Luambo’s TPOK Jazz (Tout Puissant Orchestra Kinsasha), for over 30 years—from 1961 until Franco’s death in 1989 and even after that. He was a talented guitarist, but an even better songwriter. Franco, the larger-than-life bandleader, loved Lutumba’s songs and recorded them often. These include such compositions as “Minuit Eleki Lezi,” “Mabele,” and “Mandola.” Lutumba became known as “Le Poète” because of his songwriting skills.

Lutumba performed frequently with TPOK Jazz in Kinshasha, but didn’t like to travel so he stayed in Congo. Thus audiences and fans in Paris, Brussels, and London rarely saw him in action. There is also a paucity of Kinshasa videos; in the early to late 1980’s MTV and BET (Black Entertainment TV) were flourishing, but little was done to capture Congolese rumba in Europe or Africa.

TPOK nutured young Congolese talents such as Lutumba, similar to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, where many top jazz talents rose through the ranks. Other famous members of the legendary TPOK band include guitarist Josky Kiambukuta, lead singer Sam Mangwana, and vocalist Zitani Dalienst Ya Ntesa. One of the group’s more famous slogans read, “On Entre Ok, On Sort KO,” from an early Franco album in 1956. It was written on some of TPOK’s album covers—“You come in okay, you leave knocked out.” Such was the power of the group. 

I first heard Congolese rumba years ago while living and working in Paris. At that time Congo had been renamed Zaïre per its dictator and chief kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko. Bars in the 18tharrondissement would play the music, and even though I didn’t understand Lingala, Kikongo, or other Congolese languages, I loved its joy and rhythmic groove.   

I never became as much a fan of 1980’s soukous (from the French verb “secouer,” meaning to shake…one’s hips, that is), a style of Zairean music that evolved from Congolese rumba. My feeling is that new instruments and production values that started with zouk music from the French Antilles in the early 1980’s changed the way producers in Parisian and Brussels recording studios created music. With synthesizers, the new MIDI digital interface (which sampled instruments and used those samples instead of using real musicians), and especially the Roland TR-808 drum machine, the more soulful Congolese rumba sound gave way to the new and faster soukous style. Antillean bands like Kassav’ signed on to major labels and proved immensely popular both here in the U.S. and in Europe. Miles Davis was a fan of zouk and used it when he recorded his mid-1980’s album Tutu. I will always prefer the immensely soulful, older style of classic Congolese rumba championed by TPOK Jazz.

The love song “Maya” is one of my favorite Lutumba compositions, from the CD Carlito, Simaro, Pepe Kalle. Singer Pepe Kalle, a very large man by any standard, was known as “la bombe atomique de la musique Zaïroise” also “the elephant of African music.”

The album also features a great song called “l’Affaire Kitikwala”: