‘The Princess of AFRICA’
THE VOCALIST REINCARNATED
WOULD HAVE TO BE GOOD-GIRL
BEYONCÉ TO BRENDA FASSIE’S R-RATED RIHANNA, RIGHT? BUT HER CLOSE FRIEND AND ROLLING STONE SENIOR EDITOR, BONGANI
MADONDO, SAYS THE ROYAL WOMAN-CHILD, POP SINGER AND HUMANITARIAN
WAS ALWAYS A LITTLE MORE BADASS THAN PEOPLE MIGHT
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.