Dorkay House was once the home of some of our greatest and best-loved musicians. Then, many of the musicians went into exile and Dorkay House became an empty, lonely building. Today, things have started to happen there again…
One summer day in 1953, a group of musicians and artists decided to form a union. They called their organisation the Union of South African Artists or the Union of Artists, for short. One of the union’s aims was to hold cultural activities like concerts, “jam sessions” and festivals.
A few months later, the union had its first big chance to prove itself. It organised a huge concert to say goodbye to Sophiatown’s most famous priest, Father Trevor Huddleston, who was going back to Britain. People were sad to see Father Huddleston leave. But one good thing came of the farewell — the Union of Artists raised enough money to rent their very own offices.
The new offices were in a building in “downtown” Eloff Street, next to the old Johannesburg Bantu Men’s Social Centre and a muti shop. Soon, they were alive with the music of South Africa’s music giants. Dorkay House was born.
THINGS FALL APART
Dorkay House still lives and if the building could speak it would proudly say: “I have seen all the great musicians you can think of — from Dolly Rathebe to Thandi Klaasens, Letta Mbuli to Miriam Makeba, Kippie Moeketsi to Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela to Jonas Gwangwa, from Gwigwi Mrwebi to Stompie Manana.
And let’s not forget that man of many talents, Zacks Nkosi. I was also home to actors and playwrights such as Athol Fugard, Ken Gampu, Gibson Kente and John Kani.
“Many bands played and practised here, such as the Phoenix Players and King Kong. Some of them — like the Jazz Dazzlers, the Manhattan Brothers and the Huddleston Jazz Band, are no more. I am lucky to still be alive!”
The music died in Dorkay House during the sixties when many artists went into exile. Only the African Music and Drama Association remained at Dorkay. AMDA was started by the Union of Artists for students back in the fifties — and is still going strong today.
Other musicians stopped coming and the building grew sad and lonely. Soon, the paint started to peel off. Windows were broken. Thieves broke in and helped themselves to some of the equipment. The building slowly fell apart.
THROUGH THICK AND THIN
Through all those years, one other person stayed … and stayed. She is Queeneth Ndaba. Sis’ Queeneth first went to Dorkay House as a young girl still in her school uniform. Today, twenty-one years later, she is the Chief Co-ordinator of Dorkay House.
Through all these years, Sis’ Queeneth has stuck with Dorkay through thick and thin. In 1972, the Department of Community Development tried to force Dorkay to close down because it was a “black” building in a “white” area. Sis’ Queeneth stood by her guns — she refused to go.
“Long ago,” says Sis’ Queeneth, “I vowed never to leave here. I don’t want Dorkay to go the way of other old places, like the Bantu Men’s Social Centre, the Colloseum, His Majesty’s and Brooks Theatre. They were all pulled down to make way for new shops.”
“TOEKA SE CLASS”
Sis Queeneth has always carried a special dream in her heart. She longs to see Dorkay House as a centre of culture, full of the old faces and music that made Dorkay so famous before.
It is thanks to her undying love for Dorkay that the old place managed to lift itself up from the grave. In 1981, Sis Queeneth helped to organise a band called the African Jazz Pioneers. The band’s members were “swinging toppies from toeka se music class” (the swinging old men of the old music class).
For the next few years, the African Jazz Pioneers’ home was Dorkay House. When the group later split into the Jazz Pioneers and the Jazz Prophets, the Prophets remained at Dorkay.
Then in 1988 — after seven years of struggle with recording studios who did not like their music — the African Jazz Pioneers recorded a music album, “A Tribute to Zacks Nkosi”.
The record encouraged Queeneth. She began to talk to some of the old musicians about reviving Dorkay House. They started to meet regularly to discuss plans.
LIKE A MOTHER
Queeneth also spoke to other organisations and cultural structures such as the UDF’s Cultural Desk, COSATU’s cultural unit and the ANC's Department of Culture and Arts.
She also spoke to the exiled musicians. Many of them were friends from the sixties. Trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who has been living in exile in Botswana for many years, said that he wanted to start a music school at Dorkay. Many others promised to help. Sis’ Queeneth says she has been waiting for the exiles to come back. “In a way, I have been like a mother waiting to welcome her children to a lovely, warm home,” she says.
Finally, in December 1987, the Dorkay House Trust was formed. The Trust is a non-profit making body. Its aims are to revive Dorkay House and make it a venue for popular arts and music — especially jazz. The Trust members also want to start classes for musicians and make a music library.
To do all this, the Trust needs money — which they don’t have. Already, some of the Trust’s members have had to reach deep into their pockets to pay for new windows for the building. More money is needed to buy instruments for the students to practise on. Luckily, many musicians and other artists have offered to teach the students for free.
Nomsa Njakazi is one of the people who teaches for free. Nomsa is a singer and a traditional dancer. She belongs to the Women Artists League. This year, the League took a decision to help young artists. “So I came here to start teaching traditional dancing,” says Nomsa simply.
The League also wants to start cooking classes at Dorkay House. Their speciality will be traditional cooking. “You can soon expect to smell delicious dishes like papa le morogo (pap and spinach) here,” says Nomsa. “And for those who have forgotten how to make traditional beer, there will also be classes!” she said. That’s one class we’ll be signing up for!
While we were asking Nomsa about the cooking classes, Sis’ Queeneth interrupted us. A huge bearded man shook hands with us. “Meet Bra Joe Manana, the chairperson of the Trust,” said Sis’ Queeneth.
Bra Joe is a businessman in Alexandra, but he comes from a long line of music lovers. His brother, Stompie Manana, was one of the first Dorkay House “graduates”. Bra Joe himself started going to “jam sessions” at Dorkay House as a young boy.
So, when Queeneth asked him to sit on the Trust, Bra Joe was more than happy. Bra Joe explained: “For me, Dorkay House is a monument of South African music. I feel honoured to be on the Trust. And I am pleased to help Sis’ Queeneth in any way I can.”
As we were talking to Bra Joe, three young women arrived. They wanted to take drama lessons. Later, two youths came to ask about guitar classes. Truly, “goedes are happening hierso” at Dorkay House.
“And there is lots more to come,” says Sis’ Queeneth proudly. “Next time you visit us, you will find a different Dorkay House. It will be filled with music, dance, food and song!”
So if one day you are walking down Eloff Street, and you hear the big bellowing sound of a trumpet and then sniff the smell of “mala mogodu” (offal), why not go inside? Dorkay House promises you a good time!
Here is the address of the Dorkay House Trust: 5B Eloff Street, Johannessburg, or P.O.Box 260017, Excom, 2023. Tel: (011) 836-8637 or 838-2019.