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Soweto Street Musicians Fight Their Way to the Top

  • Darren Taylor

Singer Bertha Matthews and guitarist Sipho Dube make their living playing for money in the streets of Soweto, where a lot of development is bringing tourists into the famous township

Singer Bertha Matthews and guitarist Sipho Dube make their living playing for money in the streets of Soweto, where a lot of development is bringing tourists into the famous township

Much-praised guitarist and singer duo battle to succeed in “dog-eat-dog” industry

A pack of excited, chattering Chileans rushes towards the gaunt young man with a guitar in his hand and his female companion. Her sequined, turquoise dress glimmers in the fading afternoon sun.

“You sing in the Spanish? Come on, you play us the song from Chile!” they shout in broken English at the startled pair of performers.

It’s a strange scene to be playing itself out in the middle of Soweto, in the shadow of a memorial to a slain anti-apartheid activist. But, during their two-year career as street musicians, or buskers, in South Africa’s most famous township, Sipho Dube and Bertha Matthews have become accustomed to “life’s weird and wonderful side,” as Dube puts it.

And soon, in the pale purple-pink haze of twilight, the South American tourists teach guitarist Dube the chords, and singer Matthews the words, to one of Chile’s best-known anthems, Si Vas Para Chile.

Sipho Dube taught himself guitar in Johannesburg's rough Hillbrow neighborhood, when just a teenager

Sipho Dube taught himself guitar in Johannesburg's rough Hillbrow neighborhood, when just a teenager

A few minutes later, Dube’s strums his guitar – emblazoned with a 2009 United States election sticker reading ‘Vote Change, Obama’ – and the mellifluously-voiced Matthews sings in halting Spanish. They’re accompanied by 11 misty-eyed, camera-clicking Chileans, and watched by a horde of smiling British visitors.

Worshipping Ella Fitzgerald

“I’ve always loved music from a young age. It’s something that has always been in me, that I want to be a singer,” says a somewhat shy Matthews after her impromptu performance. Her partner, Dube, though, demonstrates no reservations when he declares exuberantly, “They say she’s got the most beautiful voice ever!”

Matthews smiles and says that as a “little girl,” she remembers hearing legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald for the first time.

“I started to worship Ella,” she reflects. “I love [it]… I thought, ‘Wow, my voice comes out very beautifully when I’m singing jazz.”

Matthews says she’s trying to become more diverse as a singer, but acknowledges she’s struggling to “break away from a completely jazzy style.”

‘I was a drug addict….’

As a guitarist, Dube prides himself on his versatility. “I grew up playing in the city nightclubs, and there you had to do lots of cover versions. So I know songs by many classic American popular artists, people like Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder,” he explains.

Dube says he enjoys playing “special requests. If you just request a song, if I don’t know it, I just go and research it and then tomorrow I come and play it for you.”

Matthews and Dube often wander along Soweto's famous Vilakazi Street, performing songs for tourists

Matthews and Dube often wander along Soweto's famous Vilakazi Street, performing songs for tourists

He maintains though that he prefers “mellow riffs, rather than bashing out the beats.” But his soft style belies his harsh background. Dube grew up in Hillbrow, one of South Africa’s toughest neighborhoods, in inner city Johannesburg.

“Those were very difficult times. Thuggery (sic) and discos, up and down at night, playing music in the clubs; drugs also. I was a drug addict,” he remembers with an uncomfortable laugh, crediting his love for music with “saving” his life.

Dube says his “only hope” for survival was to leave Hillbrow and to relocate to Soweto, which he did about five years ago. He made his move at a fortuitous time – exactly when Soweto began experiencing rejuvenation, with the state investing millions of rand in developing the previously impoverished township.

Relatively soon after his move to Soweto, Dube found himself performing for throngs of tourists at new monuments to the struggle against apartheid, renovated restaurants and bars, and luxury shopping malls and hotels.

Great publicity

Later, he formed a partnership with Matthews. Now, when they don’t have a formal gig at a specific venue, they simply perform in the streets for tourists, hoping that the foreigners “toss a few coins” their way, says Dube.

Development in Soweto means that Matthews and Dube now have a lot of new places in which to ply their trade as street musicians, or buskers.... such as this plush restaurant ...

Development in Soweto means that Matthews and Dube now have a lot of new places in which to ply their trade as street musicians, or buskers.... such as this plush restaurant ...

It’s not an easy way to earn a living. “Sometimes we get lucky and people appreciate us,” says Matthews. “Other times, people just ignore us, no matter what we do….”

Dube laughs “some people’s unfriendliness” off with an exclamation, “They call it a dog-eat-dog industry!”

But both he and Matthews are confident of soon abandoning the informality and insecurity of the street for the comfort of a recording studio and a steady income.

“We’re getting great publicity. People comment on us and say, ‘Wow, this is beautiful music these two are making.’ I’m sure it’s only a matter of time now before we crack it big, so to say,” says Dube.

But he and Matthews have been disappointed often in the past.

“Top people in the South African music industry have promised to record us, and then when we have arrived at their studios, then they suddenly make excuses about why they cannot record us, or they demand money,” Dube explains.

But positive articles about the pair have appeared in various European newspapers, and they’ve also had parts in an Argentine movie shot in Soweto.

“They filmed us performing a song or two and then we appeared in the film. It was great exposure. We will never refuse such requests,” says Matthews.

Men want to marry Matthews

Acceding to such requests, she insists, forms part of the duo’s current “mission.”

“Our main work is to get ourselves out there every day and to expose our [music]. The more people see us, the more we entertain. We just join the vibe and make it a lovely occasion for everyone,” Matthews says.

A guest singer (front) joins vocalist Bertha Matthews (back, left) and guitarist Sipho Dube for a performance in a Soweto street

A guest singer (front) joins vocalist Bertha Matthews (back, left) and guitarist Sipho Dube for a performance in a Soweto street

Dube’s and Matthews’s desire to always entertain often lands them in bizarre situations…. Such as their performance of a Chilean anthem even though neither of them could speak a word of Spanish!

“The Chileans were very wild,” Matthews recalls, “they just blew us out of our socks!”

Sometimes, she says with a giggle, members of the public and tourists “make much stranger” requests than “weird” songs.… Like when men ask Matthews out on dates.
She laughs, “Guys always try that! They say, ‘You know, with that beautiful voice, I wish you could just sing for me the whole day in my house….’ And I’m like, ‘Wow!’”

Dube says some men tell him, “If you don’t marry that woman, I’m taking her tomorrow!”

But all the pair’s focused on at the moment is winning a basic recording deal.

Dube says, “Right now, we don’t even earn enough to book a studio for even one day. But what can we do? We were born to entertain, so that’s what we have to carry on doing, no matter what happens in the future.”

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