TRIBUTE: Hambe Kakuhle Thandi Klaasen
Thandi Klaasen. (Gallo Images)
Johannesburg - Sunday, January 15, was a sad day for South African jazz.
Although Thandi Klaasen had been suffering severe ill health for some time, her death from complications following a stroke, aged 86, still shocked. She had been such an indomitable musician – and human being – and had shown the capacity to bounce back from so many setbacks throughout her life. As the tributes were posted, however, something else shocked: how little many of those tribute writers knew about Klaasen’s musicianship. (The lack of public acknowledgment in South Africa for the deaths of international jazz stars Pinise Saul and guitarist Lucky Ranku late last year remains a disgrace.)
Certainly – because many of them are from the same musical generation (she was Madiba’s favourite vocalist) and because Klaasen did feature at some high-profile official events – the tributes from governing-party politicians felt much more personally sincere than they sometimes do. But outside family and co-performers, few seemed to know about her music beyond the song Sophiatown. Only the ANC Women’s League mentioned her outspoken, articulate activism on behalf of women in music.
In fact – emotionally powerful song though it is – the relatively recently composed Sophiatown was not Klassen’s “greatest hit”. That happened in 1952 when Klaasen’s Quad Sisters stormed the charts with the first African all-female close-harmony vocal recording, Carolina Wam’.
Thandi Mpambane was born in Sophiatown around 1930 (some accounts give 1931). Her father was a shoemaker and her mother a domestic worker, and they were ambitious for their talented, intelligent daughter, whom they sent to St Cyprian’s Anglican school in the hopes she would qualify as a doctor.
The young Thandi had other ideas: “Ha! Marabi!” she nostalgically recalled when I interviewed her for the radio series Ubuyile, back in 2000. “Our mothers used to have these tents ... I didn’t know what jazz was then. I could only hear this beautiful sound [coming from the tents] and listening to a singer like Emily Kwenane, and she would [scat] and I would say to myself Thixo! [Lord!] What is this woman doing with this song? I would run to the communal hall to hear this wonderful woman singing and my foot was beating all the time…”
Long before the St Cyprian’s choir, where Klaasen also sang, her musical ambitions were already forming. Kwenane was her neighbour in Sophiatown and so provided an approachable role model. “My father was broad-minded enough to finally see that I wanted to be nothing but a singer,” Klaasen told writer ZB Molefe in 1993.
Almost her first performance was as featured vocalist with the Cuban Brothers at the opening of the Donaldson Orlando Community Centre in Soweto in 1947. By the early 50s, Klaasen had formed the Quad Sisters with, among others, beauty queen and later Drum cover girl Hazel Futa.
That biography is relevant only because both women found less recognition in their day for their considerable vocal and compositional skills than for their relationships or how they looked, something that had serious consequences for Klaasen.
This was the era when the reign of powerful female band singers such as Kwenane was being eclipsed by a shift to male-vocal close-harmony groups enthusiastically promoted by the record labels. Klaasen, with her formation of the Quad Sisters, was among the first to throw down the gauntlet. “I said to myself: No, man, we have to challenge these men! And I spoke to Dambudzo [Mdledle, of the Manhattan Brothers] and he said: ‘Lord! We’ll each take one side and challenge you!’ Our first challenge to the Manhattan Brothers was at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre and the place was packed.” When I asked her who won, Klaasen explained: “It wasn’t really that kind of competition – but of course, my dear, the women did!”
Competition of a more destructive kind had led to a rival commissioning an acid attack on Klaasen in her late teens that put her in hospital for a year, and forced her to re-learn singing with a set of facial muscles that now functioned differently – as challenging a task for a singer as when a horn player suffers facial injury and their embouchure changes. Klaasen did it triumphantly.
She had not previously learnt to read and write music, although she was already composing. But time at Dorkay House – and particularly the support of saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi – soon remedied that. Again, Klaasen pulled no punches in describing how gender exploitation sometimes soured such relationships – although not in this case. “Kippie? Die was my bra! [He was my brother!] He taught me all the keys ... He knew I was a good jazz singer and he’d say to other people, ‘Teach Thandi’… And, with respect, he was not one of those who’d say come to me at lunchtime and I will make you a star, because they want to have sex with you. There are some of the white people and some of the brothers who’d want to use you for that. But he was just really concerned for me to do my best.”
Klaasen won a place in the international touring cast of the musical King Kong. Once in London, she famously leapt on to the Marquee Club stage during a Johnny Dankworth concert to sing Stormy Weather. This established her bankability as a singer with Dankworth for as long as she was in the city. “I jumped up, me and Pinocchio [Mokaleng] and we were dancing. I was wearing a skirt to fly out, to show off my panties, and everybody was clapping. And [Dankworth] would call us up on stage to sing with them…”
The singer was never willing to stay silent about the abuses of apartheid and the destruction wrought on her beloved Sophiatown. Whenever she was at home in South Africa, she was constantly followed and harassed by the security police, but this did not stop her from working. She opened for Percy Sledge on his sanctions-busting 1974 South Africa tour, and drew so much applause that she was warned: “Don’t dominate. Please remember, Percy is the star.” She so upstaged the visiting Brook Benton a few years later that she had a number cut from her set.
Klaasen also starred in the 1976 Des and Dawn Lindberg production of The Black Mikado with Ben “Satch” Masinga, Duke Makasi and Spirits Rejoice. Her working relationship with Masinga went back a long way. She had co-starred in his production Back in Your Own Back Yard, South Africa’s first isiZulu musical show. Then, the times and the mood were very different. The Black Mikado was staged at Diepkloof Hall in May 1976, a fortnight before June 16.
But the impression Klaasen’s musicianship had made during the King Kong tour meant that when she found the pressures of apartheid intolerable and left, she was able to find work. Among many other big international names on two continents, she shared the stage with both Roberta Flack and Patti LaBelle – so very different from that experience with Sledge.
As apartheid ended – and far too late – South African and international accolades began to mount up. These include South Africa’s Order of the Baobab in Gold (2006), a Standard Bank Lifetime Achievement Award, the Canadian Woman of Distinction Award and a lifetime achievement award at the 2006 SA Music Awards. In 1997 she cut an album, Together as One, with daughter Lorraine (who has a successful singing career in Canada) and fellow veterans, including trumpeter Hugh Masekela.
Despite all this, there is a scanty YouTube record beyond Sophiatown, and gendered perceptions persist – e.tv shamefully used the term “disfigured” to describe her life following the acid attack.
The word is a lie. There was never anything “disfigured” about the true sources of Klaasen’s beauty: her acute intelligence, her robust and forthright speech, and, above all, her musical skill, which was, if anything, strengthened by overcoming that particular piece of adversity.
Rarely pictured without some modern equivalent of Sophiatown’s traditional Borsalino hat, Klaasen, in her own words, “kept the candlelight burning” for South Africa’s historic jazz, singing for as long as her health allowed – and, with style, timing and verve, often giving younger musicians a run for their money. “I was meant to do this,” she told Molefe: “God gave me this talent.”
Hamba kahle to a giant of music, struggle and feminism.
To read more about South African jazz, follow Ansell’s insightful blog.