Friday 31 August 2012

Four Boys and a Dash – the story of Mary Thobei

“The dash was me!”

“When I first came to Troubador (a South African record label) with my group, the Swingtime Trotters, under the leadership of Edwill Lenyene, we were just four boys and a dash – and the dash was me!” That’s Mary Thobei talking about the start of her career as a singer.
Mary who? She has sung with the top musicians in South Africa but her name isn’t exactly a household word. Nor, despite having played a significant part in countless recordings as composer and performer, is Mary the prosperously retired ex-recording artist one might expect. She has been for some years a domestic worker in a northern Johannesburg suburban home.
Mary started working at Troubador recording studios in 1952. She stayed there until 1963.
In that time she worked with probably hundreds of musicians, including some whose names are still well-remembered by music fans – Gideon Nxumalo, Dolly Rathebe, Dorothy Masuka and, of course, Miriam Makeba.
Mary Thobei in 1993. Photo Denis Martin
Mary Thobei in 1993. Photo Denis Martin

“That was news in the records”

“In my days, you know, to be a singer was wonderful. You felt proud about it because whenever you walked in the street people would say, ‘You know such-and-such a song, there’s Mary Thobei who sings it.’ It was nice. I enjoyed it.”
“I like to sing music that I can feel and that’s what people like to hear – songs from the heart,” says Mary. “When I feel hurt, when something worries me, I will sing it. Music is my life.”
Mary reminisces about the start of her career when she was still a schoolgirl – singing in a concert at the Odin cinema in Sophiatown. With her in the show were such greats as Dolly Rathebe, Emily Kunene, Gideon Nxumalo, Willard Zuluboy Cele, “and me, the youngest.”
“I sang ‘Stormy Weather’ and when the people started applauding I was in shock and I started crying on the stage. After that Dolly came to me and said, ‘Keep it up, don’t be shy – sing! – you’ve got a nice voice.’”
Of her time at Troubador Mary says she and other musicians were paid very low fees “but we didn’t see anything wrong, because I could buy a few groceries for my mum nd get a skirt and a top for myself and still get some change.”
“I can say I was the mind of Troubador because at the end of the day, just when everyone wanted to go home some artist would come up with an idea for a song. I would say, ‘OK let’s sing it twice,’ and we would go home. Then the next day Cuthbert (Matumba – a producer at Troubador) would come to me and say, ‘Hey, Bamsanda, what is that tune you sang yesterday?’ and I would say, ‘it went like this and this.’”
“Then I would sing the tune and we would start putting some words to it and tell the recording manager we were ready. We used to do sometimes six side a day like that.”
Mary tells how she and Cuthbert would scan the newspapers and listen to the radio news broadcasts for stories they could write songs about. “Cuthbert would say he had heard over the radio that something was going to happen and ‘I want everybody now because by tonight 5 o’clock it must be out and I’m going to advertise it on the radio stations.”
“By the next morning, after the directors had listened to it, it was in the record stores. By the time the other studios woke up we were already on the shelves. That was news in the records.”
Mary attributes the great success of Troubador Records to this factor, that the songs they put out were often about contemporary issues that concerned the communities.
In an interview for Gwen Ansell’s wonderful book on South African jazz, Soweto Blues (Continuum, 2004), Mary identified some of the incidents that had given rise to best-selling sides: “Take, for instance, the big Azikhwelwa bus boycott in Alexandra Township and the death of ANC leader and Nobel prizewinner Chief Albert Luthuli. We cut best-selling records based on these incidents.”
Mary has a new role in the music world now – she provides invaluable information on the hundreds of recordings made by Troubador to Gallo Music Publisher‘s producer and archivist Rob Allingham, to help him in his research into recorded South African music of the 50s and 60s.
Mary has one great regret – she would have loved to play the tenor sax.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2012

1 comment:

Chris Albertyn said...

Thanks for this wonderful story Tony - I have a number of Troubadour recordings featuring either Mary singing, or her compositions. If you check Electric Jive out, there is a Mabel Mafuya special there, two of the tracks were co-written with Mary Thobei, including the activist song Azikhwelwa about the bus boycotts in Alexandra in 1957 (Alexandra Casbahs). I will make a plan later this year to share two other recordings - another co-written with Mafuya for "The Happy Darkies" - and then Mary Thobei and the No Nakme Darkies performing two uncredited compositions: Bana Beso and Baheso on the HIT label.