Novelist Niq Mhlongo Writes about Learning the Marabi Dance
30 Mar 2017
PEN SA member Niq Mhlongo writes about The Marabi Dance by Modikwe Dikobe:
There is a book that when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was your old friend or a relative of yours that you could call up on a phone and congratulate them on the excellent work. That is what Modikwe Dikobe’s Marabi Dance did to me. The book left me with a sense of satisfaction and completeness.
While reading this book, I found my mind flying freely like a bird in the sky, into the past that I have only heard of. It was an escape to a nostalgic past that I’ve never lived. I could hear the voices of the elders in the stokvel parties in Soweto as they fondly talked about the past. I could visualize them talking about the ‘olden days’ music groups such as the Manhattan Stars and The Harlem Swingsters. I could picture them doing their mesmerizing Marabi Dance at jazz sessions.
The book Marabi Dance is like an intimate and engaging diary of survival, history of the subalterns, their communality, ubuntu, and culture. It vividly explores the township or slum life of the 1930’s and 1940’s in the squalid Doornfontein area in Johannesburg. Without romanticizing the past, it describes the triumph of the human spirit over adversities such as overcrowding, unemployment, patriarchy, segregation, influx control, police raids and gangsterism. Through this book you get a sense of how life used to be like back then for black people in slum areas such as Vrededorp, Prospect Township, Doornfontein, George Goch, City Suburbs, New Clare, and Sophiatown. This is before these black people were forcibly removed to modern townships such as Soweto.
The book is written in simple English and it depicts the complexities of the older traditional rural values with the urban values. It does this through the main character called Martha, who grew up in Molefe Yard, in Doornfontein slum in the 1930’s. Like the majority of the characters in the book, such as Reverend Ndlovu, Martha is caught between tradition and the Johannesburg City life where traditional values and practices are under siege. Her parents are trying by all means to inculcate the discipline of the traditional way of life in her but this is impossible because the allure of the Johannesburg City, with its freedoms and promises, outweighs the traditional rules of engagement. Martha’s dilemma is that she has to face and survive the male dominated music industry, her parents who don’t want her to be a singer and the marauding gangs such as Ama-Russia.
While reading this book, I couldn’t help but make parallels between the life of the fictional Martha in Marabi Dance with those of the likes of mama Dolly Rathebe, mama Miriam Makeba, mama Thandi Klaasen, and mama Dorothy Masuku. In his collection of essays and short stories, one of the famous Drum writers of the 1950’s, Can Themba wrote about mama Rathebe and how she got into music, acting and becoming famous. In Marabi Dance, Dikobe writes about how the main character, Martha, became a singer and all the problems she encountered. For me, Marabi Dance shows beyond reasonable doubt that the powers of the past have influence over, if not control of, what is happening in the present.
Marabi Dance is an important book that I think must be compulsory for everyone to read. It made me realize that the past is still the present concern in South Africa, and that the present is the consequences of the past.
(Image courtesy of Blank Books)