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Queeneth Ndaba, Champion of South African Jazz, Dies at 81

Queeneth Ndaba, a South African jazz advocate who managed Johannesburg’s most influential home of art and culture during the darkest days of apartheid, died Aug. 15 at a hospital in Boksburg. She was 81.

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Giovanni Russonello
, New York Times

Queeneth Ndaba, a South African jazz advocate who managed Johannesburg’s most influential home of art and culture during the darkest days of apartheid, died Aug. 15 at a hospital in Boksburg. She was 81.

Journalist Bongani Mahlangu, a friend of Ndaba’s family, confirmed the death but did not give a cause.

Ndaba began her career as a singer, but after illness forced her to give that up, she found that she had a particular talent for organizing. In the early 1970s, she began to help with booking bands and handling logistics at the arts center, called Dorkay House, and she eventually became its chief proprietor and defender.

By that time, the South African government had expelled black Africans from their homes in the Johannesburg city center, forcing them into townships outside the city. Dorkay House, on the outskirts of downtown, was struggling to survive.

“She was the only person with the vision and grit to try and get it going again after years of local government neglect,” Gwen Ansell, a South African jazz critic and historian, said in an email.

In addition to helping manage the arts center’s operations, Ndaba invested heavily in the music that she staged. In 1982, she helped form the African Jazz Pioneers, a group of elder musicians who covered a wide range of midcentury music, mostly marabi and kwela, which had been popular styles fusing Zulu tradition with influences from around South Africa and North America.

The Pioneers — led by the saxophonist Ntemi Piliso and also featuring Ndaba’s husband, the saxophonist Timothy Ndaba — developed an international reputation thanks in part to Queeneth Ndaba’s work as a booking agent and promoter. The band became inactive after Piliso’s death in 2000.

“I would like to keep the legacy of those who influenced our legends,” Queeneth Ndaba told South African journalist Lucille Davie of The Heritage Portal in 2006. “This is my wish.”

Ndaba first worked at Dorkay House in 1967, serving as a costume designer and seamstress for a play being presented there. (She later ran her own fashion design business, with a focus on traditional clothing.) Its four-story building was then the nucleus of the city’s artistic world, hosting lessons, rehearsals and performances.

Dorkay House was founded in the mid-1950s by the Union of South African Artists, a group dedicated to supporting black performers. It was where the pianist Todd Matshikiza composed “King Kong,” the wildly successful South African musical that toured globally. Some of the jam sessions and performances that gave rise to South African jazz took place there, with figures like trumpeter Hugh Masekela and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa treating it as a home away from home.

Masekela wrote in his autobiography, “Still Grazing” (2004), that Dorkay House “was the only creative enclave at that time for African musicians, artists, poets, actors and singers.”

For Ndaba, keeping the venue open in the face of financial struggles required pluck and ambitious thinking. In the 1970s, she lured Dolly Rathebe, South Africa’s first black international pop star, out of retirement to play a benefit show. She also organized a variety of other ensembles, including the New Manhattan Brothers, dedicated to the repertoire of a famous vocal group that disbanded in the 1950s. In 1989, she founded the Dorkay House Trust, dedicated to preserving the building’s history.

Queeneth Maria Nkosi, one of eight children, was born Dec. 5, 1936, in Orlando East, a township outside Johannesburg. Her parents were amateur singers, and she took to singing at a young age, starting a vocal group called the Hometown Kids while in grade school.

Throat cancer forced her to give up singing early in life. She later took up the saxophone but rarely played professionally.

Ndaba is survived by two daughters, Matlakala and Mpande; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Another daughter, Gay, died before her. Her husband died in 2001.

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