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In a beautiful written piece for the New York Times, Trevor Noah paints a picture of his childhood with his mother

Caiphus Semenya at Jazz Fest - Caiphus Semenya Jazz Fest

2007-06-20 12:23

Jean Barker: I'm really glad to see that you've come back to South Africa. You left in the 60s, when it was quite a different country. What are some of your memories of childhood and the people who were important to you at that time?

Caiphus Semenya: Teenage years... those were the formative years. And that's when I got very interested in music. I was about 14, 15. And I was in Benoni Township - I don't know if you know it? But then it was called... ag... Twa-Twa location. And resident in Benoni was a group called The Woodpeckers. And the leader was Victor Madoda Ndlaziwana ... And they sang beautifully. And that's how I really became interested. I wanted to be like them.

JB: What did you first perform live?

CS: I was about 16. Ya, About 15 or 16. I was in a group, and we styled ourselves after The Wood Peckers and we called ourselves the Katzenjammer Kids. And my first time, we performed in front of an audience was in Benoni Township itself, at Davis Social centre. Me and the three guys. So we were a quartet. We had piano, bass, and drums background. And it was nice.

JB: And then you went into exile in America. How long ago was that?

CS: Oh, that was 1964. First time I stood in front of an audience was 1955 or 56. 64 I went to the States. I was 25 years old then.

JB: And then (according to what I've read), you yourself, and your wife Letta, and Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa and Miriam Makeba actually found fame, partly through Quincy Jones and others. How did you meet him, and come to work with people like him?

CS: We did not find fame through Quincy! We were already famous. That's how they got to know us. Miriam was the first one to arrive in the States, before Hugh Masekela or Jonas G or Abdullah. So by the time we arrived there, Miriam had already made a name for herself, and she'd made people to be interested in South African music. Hugh was the second one that was to achieve fame. Then came Letta, then Abdullah... and all of us, we kind of... you know... made some kind of imprint on the American music conscience. Then myself I was not a performer. I was concentrating more on writing - composing and arranging. And that was how people like Quincy Jones got to hear about me. That there was this African who was writing "hip" African music... And Harry Belafonte? I met him through Miriam. And he took interest in me because he found out that i could write melodies. African melodies that were contemporary.

JB: You've composed a very wide range of music. From movie soundtracks like the Oscar-nominated Color Purple, to the melody behind the Quincy Jones hit, Back on the Block....

CS: Mostly I work by myself. The Colour Purple was Quincy Jones's production. He had to concentrate on the production. He didn't have much time to write music. So what he did, he called some of the people he knew could deliver the kinds of music he wanted for the film. [People from many backgrounds, including gospel, jazz, dixie and others contributed.] He called me, and I furnished him with the African music. Because the music in The Color Purple is like a tapestry of African-derived music.

JB: If you think back on your career, what are the good things that fame has given you?

CS: [Laughs] I don't know if I'm famous... no it's just... ha. The good things - that I've got to travel around the world and I've seen and madefriends with many people in many countries. And that to me is very important. Traveling and interacting with people of all nations is very enlightening. And I've come back rich, and it's wonderful.

JB: And the difficult things about this kind of life, about being well known?

CS: The most difficult thing about so called fame - because I don't regard myself as that, you know? Is the fact that some people tend to look at you with awe. And maybe they want to come and say hello, but they cannot. They stand there and stare at you. [Laughs] And you're feeling friendly, you want to say "Hi", but it's very difficult, and very disquieting. [Sighs] I don't know if you understand.

JB: And now, in 2006, you're performing in a democratic South Africa, and Miriam Makeba's on the same stage with you still. How does that feel?

CS: That's wonderful, because Miriam has always been my idol. You know, I've really loved her. Her singing... and we've worked together in many productions, even on King Kong. We were not working on the same level, she was like my big sister.

JB: And at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, what kind of thing will you be playing? Stuff that's familiar to South Africans, or new things?

CS: When you have a following of people who have come to embrace your music as part of their whole experience, it becomes difficult if you do not play that music they love, you know? The fact is, you really have to play some of the music they've come to love. And I will always throw in a couple of new things, just as a surprise. But the songs that they WANT. Because if you don't do those, then they start screaming at you, and start calling the names of the songs. [Chuckles] And because you're an entertainer, you're there to give the people their money's worth, then you have to! Give them what they came to hear, and don't experiment with them.

JB: Is there anything else you want to tell your audience?

CS: Well... we are coming to satisfy your appetite for music. And it's not only myself and my group, but the other artists who will be there: Sister Miriam, and all the others. Sipho Mabuse and so on. I think we're all going to have a great time. And me? I promise you a couple of new things that you do not expect from me.

10th March 2006, by telephone, before his appearance at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival 2006

Some people inspire respect, and fill you with warmth, the instant you begin talking to them. It's not just their achievements that do it but the dignity they grant you and the generosity of their response to you. Composer and musician Mr Caiphus Semenya, one of South African music's father figures and ambassadors, is one of these special speakers.

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