‘The Princess of AFRICA’


Marie Claire (South Africa) - - LIFE STORY - WORDS BON­GANI MADONDO






re­mem­ber Yvonne? Re­cently awarded Style Icon at the SA Style Awards? The woman-child with the slightly hitched left brow – when­ever she said some­thing you were never meant to hear. Re­mem­ber her? Ag, no wor­ries. I can re­late to you.But the lady has been around as part of SA’s cul­tural DNA for so long – al­most 30 years now. She first rolled into town and fell in love with a DJ, back in 1985, and never let up; al­though to­day I feel some of those build­ing-block fans have let her go. Look at her, there she is. Win­ning smile. No scowl. Of well-ad­justed de­port­ment. A looker. Vi­va­cious… Is that even the word? If you place her on the pop scale she scores a per­fect 10, and that can be de­press­ing. (Celebrity does not like per­fec­tion – Anne Hath­away had to dis­ap­pear for a few months, so hated was the Os­car­win­ning ac­tress.) There she is, hang­ing out with the late Nel­son Man­dela. Shoot­ing the breeze with Mama Afrika (Miriam ‘Mazi’ Makeba). Sav­ing ba­bies in far­away African coun­tries: oh so benev­o­lent, so lovely and pleas­ant. A woman with a big heart, a sis­ter of all sea­sons: self­less, lov­ing, Afro dolled up. You will never hear curs­ing. No scores to set­tle, and so suc­cess­ful and set up that you soon start get­ting the feel that Yvonne has fig­ured it all out; but she has not al­ways been like this.

Like the soul bird Aretha Franklin, Moloko ‘Yvonne’ Machaka was born, in 1965, into a fam­ily of three daugh­ters. All could sing, but Vonkie (as I call her) was the fairest of them all. Grow­ing up in Dob­sonville, just out­side Soweto, Yvonne had a mas­sive talent. Her dad, Habakkuk Machaka, died when she was still a tween, at 12,and when she com­pleted her high school, No­makula Machaka, her do­mes­tic-worker mom, could not af­ford to send her to study fur­ther. It was Re­filoe and Doreen, her two sis­ters, who en­cour­aged her talent. This was not a mat­ter of visi­ta­tion by a muse, but a gift. Al­though, even be­fore she saw the in­side of a record­ing stu­dio, the young singing sen­sa­tion had made it onto TV. In 1981,Yvonne, just 16, ap­peared on a talent-search show, Su­gar Shack, on what was then known as black TV, to sing.To this day, me­dia his­to­ri­ans still ar­gue if she was in­deed the first black ‘child’ to ap­pear on SA TV.

A se­ries of meet­ings con­spired to bring Yvonne’s tal­ents to the fore. A pop­u­lar mu­si­cian of the time, Pat Shange, in­tro­duced her to the man who’d be her Sven­gali, Dephon Records’ Phil Hol­lis, then based in in­ner city Jo’burg. Hol­lis, like the pro­ducer At­tie Van Wyk, is among a few of the co­terie of ‘cross­over mlun­gus’ (or ‘white Ne­gros’). He lived, loved and dreamt black mu­sic and had an ear for town­ship sounds. Both Hol­lis and Van Wyk har­nessed young Machaka’s raw gifts in a se­ries of re­hearsals – writ­ing, loop­ing and edit­ing the rougher edges out. Fi­nally, in the au­tumn of 1985,the three came up with a full al­bum, but first re­leased what was then known as a ‘maxi-sin­gle’. Both the maxi-sin­gle and the al­bum, I’m in love with a DJ – with its mini ro­man à clef, fea­tur­ing the voice of a fic­tional char­ac­ter called Leeroy

Stone, specif­i­cally cre­ated for a mini ro­man­tic-drama seg­ment looped into the mid­dle of the song – be­came a ghetto smasher 1 000 kilo­me­tres across the coun­try.

I re­mem­ber I was 15 and doe-eyed when my mother switched on Ra­dio Bantu and the iconic ra­dio dee­jay and com­pere, Kansas City Mchunu, played the song. Her fin­gers never left the ra­dio dial, and I have never man­aged to pick up my jaw from the floor since. This was around the fad­ing days of disco, when el­i­gi­ble boys of the scene wore colourful biker jack­ets with sleeves pulled up to the el­bows, and pop cul­ture’s pre-species to both met­ro­sex­u­als and emo-boys emerged.You could be Cyndi Lau­per or Mor­ris­sey.You could be Blondie’s Deb­bie Harry or Blondie Makhene and no-one would care. But­ter-thick faux- ac­cented spo­ken rap, achingly slow, the voice sunk three notches down to af­fect a lover’s whis­per, while the smit­ten young lass ooh ’ed and aah ’ed on the other side of the re­ceiver. The song and Yvonne found their place in the dee­jays’ hearts for­ever. One of those dee­jays is the for­mer pop­u­lar Ra­dio Le­bowa an­chor, Max Mo­japelo, who told me re­cently, ‘I se­cretly fell in love with her.We all did, al­though we had not met her. When I did, that love warmed into a brother and sis­ter love.’ Her fol­low-up played up her dee­jay-woo­ing shtick. Thank You Mr. D.J. reached dou­ble gold in a month (in South African sales, that would be 20 000 units sold), and went on to bur­nish her name in our hearts. It was led by a not-so-cryptic num­ber en­ti­tled ‘I’m Win­ning (My Dear Love)’, with a rush of synths and pig-squeak­ing gui­tars all lay­ered to show­case a voice so frag­ile and yet de­fi­ant, sug­ges­tive and trans­par­ent, this was some­thing new. It was also brazen, care­less and edgy.

Re­cent pop nar­ra­tives tend to draw non­sen­si­cal, ‘Mal­colm and Dr King’ analo­gies be­tween the char­ac­ters of Brenda Fassie and Chaka Chaka. In those imag­i­nary bat­tles for rel­e­vance, Brenda smacks Chaka Chaka hands down, be­cause of her ass-kick­ing song ‘Black Pres­i­dent’. Fair enough. But coded as it was, Chaka Chaka’s ‘I’m Win­ning (My Dear Love) ’was no less, de­fi­ant – an ode to Win­nie Man­dela, cre­atively al­tered to shake the hounds of cen­sor­ship off the scent of the real blood-boil­ing lyrics sung in the town­ships as ‘Ah Win­nie Man­dela/ Win­nie my dear love’. Yvonne Chaka Chaka had ar­rived. A song­bird of the times: a woman made for ra­dio. We were all hers. Who could re­sist her? A decade later the more ma­ture, es­tab­lished and mar­ried Yvonne would move into more African sounds in­spired by Mbaqanga, East African cul­tural in­flu­ences, Shangaan and other Pan-African styles. Pop­u­lar songs such as ‘Umqom­bothi’, from Proud To Be African, come out of that era. Clearly with Africa, she had hit pay dirt.The con­ti­nent beck­oned her, and she re­cip­ro­cated with a ‘bend on all fours and kiss the moth­er­land’ ges­ture. Air kisses? Not for her. More love letters to the con­ti­nent is­sued out of a young woman who, truth be told, raised the African flag long be­fore the spo­ken-word poets of Yeoville, long be­fore the Than­diswa Mazwais, Sim­phiwe Danas and their fan-gals, Za­hara, Indwe and Berita. More al­bums along that theme tum­bled out of her seem­ingly in­ex­haustible reper­toire: Moth­er­land, Princess of Africa and Bom­bani – an ode to her in-laws, the Mhin­gas. Chaka Chaka has been mar­ried to a pop­u­lar Soweto sur­geon, Dr Mand­lalele ‘Tiny’ Mhinga, for close to 30 years and the cou­ple has been blessed with five boys who have all dab­bled in mu­sic one way or the other.

A women with a big heart, a sis­ter of all sea­sons: self­less, lov­ing, Afro dolled up

So, what hap­pened to Yvonne Chaka Chaka? Noth­ing, but some­times too much earnest­ness wears off pretty quickly. Just ask Bono. They are a mod­ern mag­a­zine edi­tor’s boon and bane: they help bal­ance a mag­a­zine’s ed­i­to­rial mix and give read­ers hope. With each good deed – of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by a me­dia re­lease from their foun­da­tions, ex­tolling their clients’ benev­o­lence – their street creds take a pub­lic whip­ping. Al­though, how classy that an artist of Chaka Chaka’s age, 49 this year, does not go around shak­ing her booty in uned­i­fy­ing ways, as some of her Sophi­a­town hero­ines re­sorted to in the mid-1990s when no-one re­mem­bered them. A hu­man­i­tar­ian at heart, she’s here, there, tak­ing up all the causes quite un­fash­ion­able even for a woman of Chaka Chaka’s big heart. As the United Na­tions (UN) Am­bas­sador for malaria aware­ness, she of­ten uses her name and con­tacts, and work­ing on the ground in needy vil­lages, to im­prove hu­man­ity’s lot. In late De­cem­ber I missed her ad­dress to jour­nal­ists at the UN, where word got out that she spoke in sup­port of the Les­bian, Gay, Bi­sex­ual and Trans­gen­der (LGBT) com­mu­nity. Now it is about women and chil­dren’s rights and poverty erad­i­ca­tion. Can Pres­i­dent Zuma get out his Nkandla bunkers and be­stow some na­tional or­der on this lady? Even her busi­ness acu­men shat­ters the ‘rock star hits rock bot­tom’ cliché. She has in­vested her pop-mu­sic money into such en­ter­prises as the IT sec­tor, car deal­er­ships, en­ergy and min­eral sec­tor and adult train­ing.

When last did you hear Yvonne on the ra­dio? Let me whis­per to you how much I miss Yvonne, or rather which Yvonne I miss. One is the al­ter-Ne­gro (al­ter-Negress) of the other. The first might now be bur­nished in pop­u­lar mem­ory for all the wrong rea­sons, in­clud­ing black African con­ser­vatism of the time. It’s a full-frontal im­age of the full-fig­ured singer, on the front page of the Sowe­tan, shot by one Mbuzeni Zulu. The singer couldn’t have been a day older than 22. This could have been any­where at ex­actly round mid­night: Stu­dio 54, New York at the height of disco or Club Pel­i­can, Or­lando, the height of soul. But, it’s in a Catholic church. The blackand-white shot nar­rows the ar­ti­fi­cial line be­tween the pro­found and the pro­fane, with the sort of reck­less­ness that’s been pho­to­shopped out of pop. The singer is on stage, in some kind of wide-legged squat, with only a few cen­time­tres of her up­per thighs un­ex­posed. Her right hand is clutch­ing a phal­lic mi­cro­phone. Her lip­stick-licked full lips are parted wide. It is left up to the viewer to make out if she’s in ut­ter pain or ec­stasy. One thing not in doubt is that the lady is dancing up a storm; be­hind her is a bronze sculp­ture of Christ on a cross, head wil­lowed fur­ther right as if to take a bet­ter look at the sight right be­fore his eyes.To this day, and ev­ery time I ask the singer about it, she just play­fully slaps me on the wrist, winks and curtly dis­misses me with, ‘Y’know: U-sile wena. U-sile (you are naughty)!’

Al­ready a pop­u­lar, town­ship soul-singer, I fell in love with her the day I first saw her. Yvonne Chaka Chaka was on the cover of an LP. If mem­ory serves me well, the al­bum was ti­tled Who’s the Boss? (And no, I had not heard of any­one called Tony Danza then). The im­age was an edgy, sexy ex­er­cise in por­trai­ture. She’s clad in a leop­ard­print sleeve­less top, arms bare, up­per body hunched over a raised knee pulled closed to her chest. She’s sport­ing an Afro. Her lips are pouted with don’t-touch-me at­ti­tude, as though to al­low you the grace or com­mon sense to think of the con­se­quences be­fore you dare whis­tle at her. In my mind, there is some­thing brit­tle yet gatvol about her, vul­ner­a­ble yet self-pro­tec­tive. But Chaka Chaka’s eyes are dancing and it feels like she’d say, ‘Look, not to­day, but call me some­time, I might feel like talk­ing then, okay?’ In­ac­ces­si­ble, de­fen­sive and a bit bored with the fact that you thought she was a Miss Goody Two Shoes in the first place.

Left South African mu­sic leg­end Yvonne Chaka Chaka on

1 De­cem­ber 1985. Op­po­site

Yvonne Chaka Chaka per­forms dur­ing Man­dela Day: a 46664

Cel­e­bra­tion Con­cert at Ra­dio

City Mu­sic Hall on 18 July 2009

in New York.






Be­low, clock­wise from far left to right Yvonne with Richard Bran­son at Nel­son Man­dela’s 85th birth­day cel­e­bra­tion on 22 July 2003 in Jo’burg; teach­ing chil­dren at Mar­garet Gwele Pri­mary School in Soweto about the im­por­tance of wash­ing their hands, on 15 Oc­to­ber 2012 in Jo’burg; meet­ing Oprah Win­frey; with Ade­laide Tambo, Graça Machel and Nel­son Man­dela at his 85th birth­day cel­e­bra­tions. Op­po­site, from left to right On stage with Brenda Fassie; with her hus­band, Dr Mand­lalele Mhinga and sons.

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