Thomas Chauke on fame, his wives and making music again

2019-04-05 16:22
Thomas Chauke with his wives. (Photo: Lubabalo Les
Thomas Chauke with his wives. (Photo: Lubabalo Lesolle)

It’s a blazing hot morning and the village of Salema in Giyani, Limpopo, is vibrant with street markets and older model cars cruising along the main road. Hawkers selling locally grown avocados, tomatoes and oranges tap at car windows, enticing drivers to buy their wares.

Down a dusty side street just off the bustling thoroughfare is where you’ll find the village’s most famous citizen: veteran Tsonga singer Dr Thomas Chauke.

It isn’t hard to find his house: the double-storey, facebrick mansion he shares with his four wives, 20 children and 21 grandchildren rises like a pillar among the small houses and huts dotted along the rest of the street.

Yet there are no high walls surrounding this place, just a wire fence with a wide-open gate and fans are welcome to pop in and greet the veteran singer any time they feel like it.

And this they do – because although he’s been in the business since 1978, Thomas remains as relevant as ever.

Now 66, he’s back in the studio putting the final touches to his 36th album, Shimatsatsa No 35. After releasing Shimatsatsa No 34: Xiganga at the end of 2015, he took a two-year break, relaxing at home with his family and doing the odd live performance to bring in money. During the break he continued to write and record music from his state-of-theart home studio.

Almost every week Thomas and his four wives, Joyce (60), Lucia (52), Ethel (52) and Eve (46) – who are also his backing vocalists and go by the name The Shinyori Sisters – gather to record as many songs as they can.

Thomas writes the lyrics and makes the beats then the four women join him to lend their vocals to his creation.

In the upcoming 12-track album Thomas sings about love, hope, money, politics and spirituality and reckons this will be his bestselling album. Thomas loves telling the story of how an old guitar and a radio gave him his start in life.

He married his first wife, Joyce, in 1975 and moved with her to Johannesburg to try to find work.

“I fixed swimming pools and tennis courts until I fell ill and needed to go back to Limpopo,” he says.

Once home, his uncle Daniel gave him a guitar to strum in the hope it would keep him occupied. “I would sit outside in the yard, playing my guitar. Occasionally I would get a few coins fixing radios and TVs,” he says.

Then he met an old man who, for R5, sold him a radio that was also a tape recorder. “That radio was the beginning of my career. I recorded artists, formed a group and eventually bought myself an electric guitar for R15,” he says.

And he was on the road to success.

Thomas once had a 13-member group but today it’s just him and his four wives and he likes it that way.

“I wanted us to keep the business here at home, to keep the money and talent within the family.”

When he met his first wife, she couldn’t sing, he says. “I fell in love with her, not the singer. But she needed to be part of the group so I trained her to sing,” he says.

About six years later he met his second wife in a nearby village. “I sat my first wife down and told her I wanted to take a second wife,” he recalls. “She is the boss and she needed to agree. She was uncomfortable in the beginning, but things became better. They got to know each other and she also joined the group and sang with us,” he says.

“And so the same thing happened with the other two.”

Thomas married a fifth time but things didn’t work out and she left to pursue her own career in music.

A few minutes into the conversation Lucia, his second wife, arrives with a cup of warm, milky coffee. She kneels in front of her husband, looking down as she serves him his mid-morning cup.

“We still do things the traditional way here – I provide for my family and they contribute towards the running of the home,” he says.

The Shinyori Sisters all dress in the same outfits when performing and although the first wife is given respect, they treat one another as sisters and take turns cooking. “I’m cooking today and tomorrow will be someone else,” Ethel tells us.

First wife Joyce says their husband is strict but also very caring. “He puts his family first in everything he does.”

The wives prefer to stay in the background during the interview, observing their culture and letting the head of the family – their husband – do the talking. “I am very family-oriented,” Thomas says.

“If I’m not out there working on building my legacy and promoting my music, I’m at home with my family and grandchildren.”

During his 35-year career he’s been bestowed with many awards and achievements. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in African languages for the role his music has played in the development of the Tsonga language by the University of Venda in 2010. He’s also won 16 Samas, including best traditional album in 2014.

In 2016 he was presented with the Order of Ikhamanga by then-president Jacob Zuma, which recognises South Africans who’ve excelled in arts, culture, literature, music, journalism and sport. These days his music isn’t played enough on the radio, he says a little sadly.

“I know the demand is there, people want to hear it. I now want to collaborate with young people to keep our music alive.”

Thomas is passionate about preserving the music and his beloved language. Although Tsonga is his mother tongue, it’s by no means the only language he speaks – he’s fluent in almost all South Africa’s official languages.

“I learnt to speak many languages while I was travelling the different parts of the country. But I prefer to write music in Tsonga because I express myself better. There aren’t many artists these days who still sing in their home language and I want to preserve my culture for many generations to come.”

While chatting, a neighbour’s child comes to collect old empty tins and cans to sell for a few coins.

“These are my people,” Thomas says. “I help where I can. I love rural life because here we all know one another and we take care of one another.”

He still lives on the same property where he grew up, but the house has changed dramatically from the hut he once lived in with his parents. While many of his peers have died or are no longer in music, he’s grateful to still be alive and healthy enough to continue.

“I will never change,” he says. “I will always stay humble and be an advocate for African languages. It is my life’s work.”