Ode to Lina Mattaka, Queen of Soprano
Joyce Jenje-Makwenda Correspondent
WHEN it was unheard of that a woman could sing in a public hall in front of men Lina Mattaka was brave enough to tread in the male-dominated space in the mid-1930s. Historically black women sang only in church choirs or at traditional ceremonies. Anything outside the traditional context seemed to
raise society’s eyebrows, if not ire.
Lina Mattaka was brave enough to confront prejudice against women performers, and to set jazz aflame in the African Township. Ultimately she got resounding acceptance by several audiences.
She was called the Queen of Soprano!
Her enterprising spirit opened spaces for women in entertainment and women in general who came to watch her and realised that women also belonged to this public space. Women started claiming more spaces in arts and in other professions. Today women in music have gone for other opportunities presented to them in music and the arts industry it is because of those women who came before us who had to pave the way.
Women have learnt that music is not only the stage but a whole lot of other things – managing, promoting, writing about music, music education – lecturing/teaching and learning about music up to PhD, leading musical groups, it has become almost an industry.
The understanding of music and arts in its broader sense has been a journey particularly for women who have to deal with structures that monitor and control their growth. Today we have come to understand music and the arts in its totality because there were women who were trend-setters like Lina Mattaka.
But the woman who in the 1930s became the talk of the township as the first woman to champion township/jazz music – and by so doing she set the pace for our popular music – is no more. Lina Mattaka passed away on November 7 2015 in Bulawayo. She turned 93 on September 15. According to her grandson, Edison Msora, Lina Mattaka suffered a stroke a week ago and she did not come out of the stroke until her death on Saturday.
I was privileged to have known her and even to sing with her as she would invite me to do first part for her which was done by her late daughter Bertha Msora who passed away in 2005. I sang with her on her 91st birthday and she invited me to accompany her with first part at a wedding where she was invited to sing in Bulawayo. It was such a pleasure to be with this legend.
Many musicians who later came up in the 40s, 50s, 60s and even 70s did their apprenticeship at the Mattaka residence. She groomed such musicians as Rennie Jones, popular musician of the 40s who became the lead singer with De Black Evening Follies; Susan Chenjerai, a revered musician and actor from the 60s to the 90s, who sang with Safirio Madzikatire who had also done his music apprenticeship with the Mattaka family. The Mattaka family home was like a cultural centere in Mbare’s Fourth Street.
Lina Mattaka’s musical career began in Bulawayo in the 30s, where she was born and bred. As a young girl, she sang for her church and in Sunday School. The first professional choir in which Lina Mattaka sang was with the Bantu Glee Singers and they performed at the Stanley Hall beginning in 1936.
In 1944 Kenneth Mattaka performed in Bulawayo with The Bantu Actors, where he met the attractive Lina at the Stanley Hall. They instantly fell in love and got married. Lina eventually settled in the then Salisbury where Kenneth Mattaka was based. She joined the Bantu Actors, and subsequently brought in more female singers: Challote Phiri, Thandi Sheba, and Rennie Jones
This is how the Daily News in 1958 reported on her musical career;
When the Bantu Actors toured Northern Rhodesia and the Congo border four years ago, audiences everywhere mobbed and heaped praises on the troupe’s slim, vivacious and elegant looking leading female singer – Lina Mattaka.
To them she was all and all that showbiz could give Southern Rhodesia troupes that had visited the Copperbelt before. Many had received thunderous welcome, but none of their stars had been so warmly received as Lina Mattaka.
As the old MaShona proverb aptly puts it, “It was the sound of a drum about to crack”. And indeed it was, for that was the last Northern Rhodesia saw of Lina and what a fitting finale to life so full of gaiety and splendour.
On returning to Salisbury Lina quit the stage for her family of four. Lina Mattaka’s singing career is perhaps the longest on record. She very well deserves being termed the greatest of the women pioneer; for it is Lina in those stale curtain-laced years, the late thirties who alone championed the women’s cause.
In the larger cities, there were times, so she tells me, when a woman was not so readily welcome on stage. But Lina and jazz came rolling and was among the first few women who joined to set the Ball of Jazz Rolling the Jazz-O-Africa Townships rolling’(4, February 1958 – Socialite).
Lina also featured in the movie “Mattaka’s Money” (or “Mattaka Buys a Bicycle”), with daughter Bertha and husband Kenneth, who played the major role. She also championed film acting.
When The Bantu Actors disbanded, she continued to sing, with the family grouping: Kenneth and children, Bertha and Eddison.
She also featured in the documentary that I produced, “Mattaka Family 1998”. She continued with singing at weddings, family gatherings and the church.
In 2012, Lina Mattaka was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the inaugural Harare Jazz Festival Lifetime Achievement Awards.
According to grandson Nathan Dodzo, Lina is survived by two children, eight grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren, and one great-great- grandchild.
Her body was due in Harare yesterday and she will be buried at Warren Hills today where her husband was buried.
Mourners are gathered at 3 Sulgrave Road, Marlborough.
Thank you mama, ulale ngoxolo mama wethu (Rest in peace our mother). You worked for the music and the arts industry for it to be where it is today. Oh mama, I am yet to see anyone who sings soprano the way you did. Yours was unique, very unique!