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Kolokoti joins celestial band

Singer Mary Rabotapi-Alcock, fondly known as "Kolokoti" because of a childhood obsession of playing with tin cans, has passed on.

Rabotapi-Alcock stumbled into the music business under the tutelage of her late partner and former Gallo music talent scout Sam Alcock.

After completing her junior certificate, Rabotapi-Alcock would occasionally accompany Alcock, the man credited with discovering one of South Africa's most famous musical exports, Miriam Makeba, to recording sessions.

With no real musical experience to speak of, Rabotapi-Alcock was egged on by Alcock, who encouraged her to practise singing a wider repertoire of songs than the traditional ones she learnt while growing up.

It was not too long before Rabotapi-Alcock's opportunity came along when, at Alcock's urging, Makeba formed the sensational late 50s girl group the Skylarks.

Veteran journalist ZB Molefe says the Skylarks, which was formed in 1956, originally consisted of Makeba's sister Mizpah, Johanna Radebe and Helen van Rensburg.

Later Makeba, Rabotapi-Alcock, Mummy Girl Nketle and Abigail Kubeka, joined on occasions by Nomonde Sihawu and bass Sam Ngakane, formed the heart of the group.

The group rocketed to stardom with Makeba as lead vocalist soon after it was launched.

It broke records as it sold successfully throughout South Africa.

The Skylarks ushered in a new era of dominance by female harmony groups after harmony male groups such as the Manhattan Brothers had dominated the music scene.

The group was so successful that it started touring neighbouring Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia).

"Its success was confirmed when Rabotapi-Alcock and fellow group members took part in the country's first black musical King Kong.

Rabotapi-Alcock toured, alongside fellow Skylarks members Kubeka and Makeba, South Africa for 10 months.

Makeba left for the United States of America in 1959 and remained exiled until apartheid was defeated.

Rabotapi-Alcock and the remaining members continued on their own and recruited promising young Letta Mbulu to take over as lead vocalist.

The highly successful King Kong soon got the attention of British promoters who adapted the script to an English audience and staged the musical in London in 1960.

Rabotapi-Alcock was in the cast of King Kong that toured England and shortly thereafter returned home to look after her two children at the time.

"I was among those cast members who returned when King Kong finished its tour of England.

"I had two children to look after. I had to come back home," she told ZB Molefe in 1993.

At that stage Rabotapi-Alcock had two children by Alcock: Charity and Churchill.

Now back home Rabotapi-Alcock made ends meet through music as she turned to studio session music.

Most notably, Rabotapi-Alcock became part of a group of about nine female vocalists that were on rotation to perform as the famous Mahotella Queens, formed by Gallo producer Rupert Bopape.

Sadly, like any musician of that era will tell you, most musicians, apart from a handful, could not survive and exploitation was rife.

"There was no money at all. When we came back from London there was nothing for us . those are the same things that put me out of music . payment for artists was worse then, we were ripped off," Rabotapi-Alcock said.

Rabotapi-Alcock was born in Grasmere in the south of Johannesburg on July 2 1937.

Rabotapi-Alcock died on Friday January 29 after a short battle with breast cancer.

She leaves behind three sisters, three children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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