Bertha Egnos, the composer of South Africa’s hit musical from the 1970s, “Ipi Tombi,” died in Johannesburg on July 2. She was 90.
Egnos wrote the songs she became best known for, “Mama Thembu’s Wedding” and “The Warrior,” during the early 70s, intending them to be sung by Eartha Kitt on her tour to South Africa.
In the end, Kitt never sang the songs but they did spawn the country’s first indigenous hit musical as Egnos used the songs to create the musical “Ipi Tombi” (Where are the girls?) with her daughter Gail Lakier.
The musical opened in South Africa in March 1974 and ran for six consecutive years, also attracting international acclaim and touring England, France, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. In 1980 it was given the Jimmy Durante “Best Revue” award in Las Vegas, where it ran for two years.
South African-born Egnos was a talented musician in her own right who performed in London during the 1930s as a jazz pianist. During the Second World War she returned to South Africa, where she led the armed forces’ drum majorettes.
It is perhaps no surprise that she was the author of a musical based on black music and traditions that was hailed by white auds — during the apartheid years she was a regular performer at the legendary Dorkay House venue in downtown Johannesburg, where black and white musicians defied the country’s laws by performing together under one roof.
The lasting tribute to Egnos is that many of the songs from the show have lived on long beyond “Ipi Tombi” and are well-known to a generation not even born when she penned the musical.