An Ode to Thandie Klaasen

An Ode to Thandie Klaasen

The flugelhorn horn in Sophiatown blows a melancholic threnody, a melody expressing the loneliness of loss and dispossession, the sadness of being kicked out of the only tenement you could rest your weary bones in, and provide some kind of repose for your apartheid harassed soul; the only place where the meaninglessness of racial segregation could reveal its true colours and be spat in the face like the buffoon it really was.

Sophiatown is a place where black and white and orange and purple and green could meld into one colourful rainbow whilst listening to the blues of the jazzmen and the divas of jazz on a colourful ruby Tuesday, or, on a Friday when the hip could hop and paint the entire town red without the worry of Hendrik Verwoed’s security police forces, or with the worry that they might pop in any time to cudgel and kick the shebeen door down and arrest the patrons for such minor crimes of passion as interracial love affairs between black and white banned by the Immorality Act of Apartheid South Africa.

Sophiatown, it is said was the best of the best when it came to real living in a segregated society; it was the hub where the intellectual and the muso met, where one could both be shameless and really free amidst the cloying tension created by the apartheid state and government.

Ironically, Sophiatown gave birth to the cream of the crop when it comes to South African music, media, politics, and various other professions that finally managed to pull South Africa (by the ears) out of the clutches the monster apartheid was.

Sophiatown was a melody (is a melody) to he or she fortunate enough to listen to the music of her children, from Hugh to Dolly, Miriam to Spokes, and to the contralto of the best Jazz Lady of Song, mum Thandie Klaasen in whose memory this piece is.

I am listening to Jimmy Hendrix play the Bob Dylan masterpiece All Along the Watchtower, but in my memory I see and hear the voices of the best divas in song; Cape Verde’s daughter Cesaria Evora’s Besame Mucho and Nina Simone singing Jacque Brel’s Ne me Quitte Pas in contralto, and over their voices I cannot ignore the sad lonely sweet piercing flugelhorn accompanying the bold voice of the best lady of jazz Thandie Klaasen reminiscing about Sophiatown in a poem that recounts the full spectrum of the pain suffered by the forced removal of the multi-racial population from a place they had come to know as home, but which had turned out to be in the way of the progress of apartheid and its policies of racial segregation, and which therefore had to be erased from the map along with its population of men and women and children.

I could expend ink and exhaust paper making a brave attempt to honour the memory of the valiant heroes of Sophiatown, but I have no time; I have only the moment to honour the memory of a heroine that made me realise that time and its events change not the course of one in life, that is if one keeps their soul focused on the goal they first set out to achieve when their journey of a thousand miles began;

Thandie Klaasen was nie bang nie (not scared) of what destiny would throw at her: and she proved it by bearing the acid attack scars with a grace and poise that would leave a lesser strong human like I am cowering in the shadows for fear of what the world might say about my looks.

She bore the scars to make weaklings realise that acceptance of the circumstance helps one to stick to the road to the destination God sets out for each and everyone upon their conception into the world.

I believe Thandie, Nina, Miriam, and Cesaria are now united in the best quartet ever heard, in my mind that is, even if it is only for a while.

A bird of song flies straight to the heart when it sings, and the four matriarchs of song melt my heart each time I hear them sing, even if it is only in record.

Thandie Klaasen (nee Mpambane) was born sometime in the early 1930s (the dates as to her birth are ambiguous, place her date of birth sometime in 1930/1931) and grew up in the multi-racial suburb of Sophiatown, the daughter of a shoemaker and a domestic worker.

She discovered her capacity and love of singing in her family church as a young girl. It was a talent that was made all the more promising by the fact of her beauty and the possibilities provided by the unfolding cultural renaissance taking shape in multi-faceted Sophiatown at the time.

The scene was alive and The Drum writers were articulating a literary equivalent to the music.

Stars such as Louisa Emmanuel, Thoko Thomo and her group the Lo Six, as well as “blues queen” Emily Kwenane, were paving the way for young black singers like Klaasen.
It is said that Sis Peggy’s Shebeen and Back of the Moon, with their tragicomic mix of binge drinkers and police raids, provided perennial drinking holes.

This is the era of the Harlem Swingers, the Manhattan Brothers and similar male-led bands. It is said that defiant Klaasen was unimpressed with the almost exclusive dominance enjoyed by these “boy bands”, and in a kind of feminist intervention, she formed all-female vocal quartet the Quad Sisters (they were a hit).

In 1952 their song Carolina Wam’ was all the rage. It confirmed her as a legitimate star. In fact, Klaasen’s group paved the way for the young Miriam Makeba and her girl group, the Skylarks.

Klaasen’s rising star saw her work with Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz and Variety on a number of shows.

Her career as a singer and dancer that began in the 1950s would in 1961 see her form part of the London cast of King Kong, the iconic musical theatre production that was a lifeline to many pioneers of South African music.

Devised by Todd Matshikiza and Harry Bloom, the production launched many of the era’s stars as international performers, including Miriam Makeba and Dolly Rathebe, Dorothy Masuka, and others.

It would be a career that would span well over 50 years in entertainment and establish Thandie as the only one of the old school who was proud to speak in Ekasi lingo, a mix of languages that is kin to the popular Tsotsitaal.

One can well tell from the interviews that Ms Klaasen was always street smart, she switches from the formal to the informal with the ease of a master weaver switching threads to spin a beautiful piece of fabric, and in this instance, it is the fabric of the various languages of Southern Africa and the world she spins in her music.

It has been said by close musical friends like Dorothy Masuka that Thandie would often never bother to read the lyrics on a score; because she could create her own better lyrics in prompt on stage: and this is a reflection of her resilience. She could move well with the contours of a composition whilst still maintaining her credo; doing things her way as sung by the legendary Frank Sinatra in the masterpiece My Way which she covered. I saw her rendition of Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World and I was wowed! No wonder Nelson Mandela loved to hear her sing that tune.

Even though Thandie Klaasen died from pancreatic cancer on the 15th of January 2017, aged 86, one cannot ignore the fact that she has had a positive influence on a lot of people who cannot accept the state they are in.

\She wore her scars with pride and in the process proved that hitches in time should not mean the end of the stitching of the fabric of time; we are what we are, and that is the way it is going to be, so Bob Marley says.

What the attacker did not know is that the acid would only scar the face and not the soul; it would never kill the never-say-die spirit that buoyed Mama Thandie all these years.
For many, her face bears the testament of what keeping on really means, that one should go on no matter the situation; time and tide wait for no man, and to be in time, one cannot spend their days moping about might have beens that did not turn up as planned and wallowing in debilitating self-pity; the best is to chin it on in the face of the deluge and the hailstorm.

This makes me remember a Grace Nichol’s poem Holding My Beads, found in David Rubadiri’s Growing Up With Poetry which we used to read back in my high school days:
Unforgiving as the course of justice
In erasable as my scars and fate.
I am here
A woman…with all my lives
Strung out like beads before me
It isn’t privilege or pity that I seek
It isn’t reverence or safety
Quick happiness or purity
ButThe power to be what I am/   a woman
Charting my own futures/      a woman
Holding my beads in my hand
Feminist to the chauvinistic, this poem however defines the state women like Thandie Klaasen have had to work through as third-class citizens in a segregated society that brutalised the majority into being creatures that found comfort in hurting each other, just so they could evade pain of the drudgery of the long days on the “baas’’ farm and factory floor for menial pay.

One hears her anger on the interviews; the early days when they would be paraded in front of white audiences who only glad to watch the “native” maiden belt out their favourite jazz tunes to their chagrin and delight.

The scene she paints is one of two divided sides forced only by history, circumstance, and time to interact with each other, the main difference being that one side considered itself more human than the other which they considered lesser human.

The tenacity and the diligence with which she drove a career sparked by the sight of a jazz band playing at the high school she attended was sustained by the pain of apartheid, and even after the attack that scarred her, the dream she kept close to her heart just could not be dimmed, and she pursued it with all her might ignorant of the inerasable scars on her face.

This is the Thandie that I believe we should see; an amazing Amazon who sang of the pain of her people in oppression just so they would all know that there is always a better day ahead, somewhere in the convoluted passages of the future.

We are what we dream we will be: it is what makes the present all the more worthwhile no matter the prevalent travails and perilous circumstances which life throws our way with or without reason.

I see not the scars, but I see an angel whose voice kept the boogie alive in the townships when the police with their guns, steel-toed boots, and knuckledusters wanted to scare the majority into submission, into accepting that they were lesser human than their oppressors, when they were forced into accepting minimum pay for maximum labour in confined tunnels of the gold mine, and in cramped factories where they spun money for the lords.

I hear her contralto sing somewhere on a shore in the synapses of my mind, and she is not alone; with her in song is the gentle barefoot diva Cesaria Evora, and close to her is the temperamental Nina Simone, jubilant Miriam Makeba is clicking away in Xhosa as they sing some “a capella” melody that has my mind in some state seven leagues above heaven.

You can forgive me for loving a queen that has moved on to a place we shall meet sometime in the future: do understand my love for her spirit of never giving in. Enjoy the music she left behind for you to listen to.
Mooie loop Thandie, Hamba kahle…

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