KLAASEN WAS JAZZ TRAIL­BLAZER

Tragedy could not hob­ble her iconic spirit and she will be re­mem­bered for her megas­tar tal­ent that ig­nited fans from around the globe, writes Sam Mathe

The Star Early Edition - - FRONT PAGE -

JAZZ and blues singer Thandi Klaasen, 86, will be re­mem­bered for her quick wit, ex­tra­or­di­nary sense of hu­mour and ex­cep­tional stage­craft. Her charm and courage were leg­endary.

Born Thandiwe Nelly Mpam­bani on Septem­ber 27, 1931 in the old Sophi­a­town, she per­son­i­fied that era with her pen­chant for tsot­si­taal – the lan­guage of the street­wise – and her el­e­gant dress sense. She was also a fash­ion icon.

As a per­former, she was in the league of the great fe­male singers who trail­blazed jazz’s golden era in the 1950s – with Dolly Rathebe, Miriam Makeba and Dorothy Ma­suku be­ing the most prom­i­nent of them all.

Her fa­ther, Wil­liam “Cuth­bert” Mpam­bani was a shoe re­pairer by trade and her mother, Eve­lyn, was a do­mes­tic worker, but both were singers by in­cli­na­tion. They were also staunch Methodists who brought the roof down with their spir­ited singing.

At the time the older gen­er­a­tion re­garded mu­sic as a pas­time and so an aca­demic qual­i­fi­ca­tion as an es­cape route from the poverty that seemed en­demic in most black fam­i­lies, who had to make do with pal­try wages for me­nial work.

Thandi was a bright pupil,but she had other ideas. She loved at­tend­ing mu­sic shows at lo­cal con­cert halls where top jazz acts of the day such as the Gay Gai­eties and the Har­lem Swing­sters per­formed. She was par­tic­u­larly fond of the jitterbug dance and be­came the most pop­u­lar fe­male dancer in Sophi­a­town.

Her pro­fi­ciency in singing and danc­ing be­came ev­i­dent from a young age when she was a pupil at St Cyprian’s Angli­can Pri­mary School and later, West­ern Na­tive (Madibane) High School. She fea­tured promi­nently in school con­certs.

“In those days I wanted to read and write mu­sic, but they didn’t have such a school at Dorkay House. It was with the help of peo­ple like Kip­pie Moeketsi, who gave us tu­ition that we learned. I wish our young­sters would make good of their chances,” she said.

The defin­ing mo­ment was when she saw the great Emily Koe­nane on stage at the Bantu Men’s So­cial Cen­tre in Joburg. Fondly known as “The Em­press of the Blues”, Koe­nane was re­garded as the great­est jazz and blues singer of her era – the 1940s.

Her suc­cess and that of all-male vo­cal har­mony groups such as the African Inkspots and the Man­hat­tan Brothers in­spired Thandi to form her own group – an allfe­male troupe named the Quad Sis­ters. Their line-up in­cluded Joyce Se­naka, Stella Mbanze and Than­deka Mpam­bani, her sis­ter.

The vo­cal quar­tet be­came the toast of the town and was the first African fe­male group to record their songs. Their 1952 de­but sin­gle was ti­tled Carolina Wam (My Carolina) and be­came a hit. Over the years she also sang with the Gay Gai­eties, the Cuban Brothers, the Har­lem Swing­sters and the Shan­ty­town Sex­tet.

In the mid-1950s she joined Alf Her­bert’s African Jazz and Va­ri­ety Show – a song-and­dance ex­trav­a­ganza of black singers, ac­tors and dancers who were billed to per­form for white au­di­ences in town.

Their shows were sold-out and it was around this time that she met Lu­cas Klaasen. The cou­ple’s only daugh­ter, Lor­raine Klaasen, was born in 1957.

Four years later in 1961, Klaasen trav­elled to London with the King Kong jazz opera. It was a re­sound­ing suc­cess.

She sub­se­quently toured Europe to crit­i­cal ac­claim. While King Kong served as a one-way pass­port to ex­ile for many black mu­si­cians such as Makeba and the Man­hat­tan Brothers, Klaasen re­turned home.

She later starred in sev­eral mu­si­cals that were in­spired by the show such as Fred En­ge­len’s Mr Pal­jas, Ben “Satch” Masinga’s Back in Your Own Back­yard and Gib­son Kente’s Sikalo. She was a head­line act at in­door venues and open-air fes­ti­vals along­side big names such as Moeketsi, Mankunku Ngozi, Early Mabuza, So­phie Mgcina and Abi­gail Kubeka.

She be­came a reg­u­lar fea­ture in top venues in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries like Mozam­bique, Swazi­land and Le­sotho. In the 1970s and 1980s she be­came a top open­ing act for vis­it­ing in­ter­na­tional su­per­stars such as Percy Sledge, Brook Ben­ton and Eartha Kitt.

Klassen was so won­der­ful on stage that man­agers had to ask her to tone down her act so as not to take the spot­light from the Amer­i­can stars.

She was at the height of her ca­reer when tragedy struck.

She was sched­uled to per­form in Ja­pan with Nina Si­mone in Oc­to­ber 1973, when a neigh­bour and friend Irene Bowes or­ches­trated an at­tack on her.“I re­ally wanted to go to Ja­pan,” she told Learn and Teach mag­a­zine in 1983.

“I was al­ready mar­ried with two lit­tle chil­dren. My hus­band said I must go.

“I then told my best friend about the job. And she told me to come for sup­per that night.

“She promised to cook my favourite meal – dumplings and roast beef. When I went to her place I saw two boys at the gate. I greeted them and passed. Then I heard some­body be­hind me.

“And sud­denly my face was on fire. She had hired those two boys to throw petrol over me and set me alight. They were only18 years old. She gave them R10 and a bot­tle of whisky for the job.

“I don’t know why she did that. We had no ar­gu­ments.

“Maybe she just didn’t want me to go to Ja­pan. I stayed in hos­pi­tal for over a year. Oh, God, that was a ter­ri­ble time. My hus­band left me. Most of my good friends for­got about me.

“But some peo­ple didn’t for­get me. My family helped me and the doc­tors and nurses were kind to me. And a few old friends like Queeneth Nd­aba stood by me. They gave a con­cert for one of my skin op­er­a­tions,” she said.

Many peo­ple thought Klaasen wouldn’t sing again, but she bounced back. Her first per­for­mance was in July 1974 dur­ing the Sound Power Jazz Fes­ti­val at the Jab­u­lani Am­phithe­atre in Soweto. In 1976 she ap­peared in Des and Dawn Lind­berg’s mu­si­calThe Black Mikado along­side her daugh­ter Lor­raine Klaasen. They toured Greece and Is­rael.

In the same year she was hon­oured with the pres­ti­gious Count Pushkin Award for be­ing the best fe­male vo­cal­ist of the year.

Klaasen re­ceived nu­mer­ous ac­co­lades, in­clud­ing The Woman of Dis­tinc­tion Award in Canada in 1999 for lend­ing her out­stand­ing voice to the lib­er­a­tion Strug­gle in South Africa.

She was also pre­sented with two Life­time Achieve­ment Awards by the SAMAs (2006) and the Stan­dard Bank Joy of Jazz Fes­ti­val (2013), as well as the Pres­i­den­tial Or­der of the Baobab in Gold (2006) for “ex­cel­lent achieve­ment in and con­tri­bu­tion to the art of mu­sic”.

Klaasen was more of a stage per­former than a record­ing artist, but in 1997 she re­leased a 14-track al­bum, To­gether As One. It was her sec­ond after Love is Strange, re­leased in the 1970s. Her last per­for­mance was in April in Sophi­a­town.

It was an emo­tional home­com­ing and de­spite her de­te­ri­o­rat­ing health she gave it her all and de­lighted her au­di­ences.

In Au­gust she made a fi­nal pub­lic ap­pear­ance when she and fel­low song­birds Ma­suku and Kubeka were hon­oured dur­ing a con­cert at the Mar­ket Theatre.

The Di­vas of Kofifi was a trib­ute show which cel­e­brated the lives and times of these spe­cial artists. They re­ceived an elec­tri­fy­ing stand­ing ova­tion from the au­di­ence.

“I feel sad that tonight I won’t be able to sing for you, but my sis­ters Abi­gail and Dorothy will sing for all of us even though they’re re­lieved that I won’t be on stage to burn the house down,” she joked in a writ­ten mes­sage.

“I would like to thank all my fans for the sup­port and en­cour­age­ment you have shown me through the good and the bad times. A big thank you for the speedy re­cov­ery wishes from my ded­i­cated fans all over south­ern Africa, the US, Canada, Cuba and the Caribbean.

“My mot­tos will al­ways re­main: ‘They can burn my face but not my voice’, and ‘peo­ple not ma­te­rial things en­rich my life’.”

She will be buried next Fri­day at the He­roes’ Acre in the Thomas Nkobi Memo­rial Park in Elspark, Boks­burg.

The fu­neral ser­vice will be held at JD Thomas Hall in Eden Park, Al­ber­ton, from 8am.

A memo­rial ser­vice will be held on Wed­nes­day in the Ger­mis­ton City Hall from 12pm-5pm.

They can burn my face but not my voice. Peo­ple, not things, en­rich me

PIC­TURE: MICHAEL GLENIS­TER

DI­VAS: Abi­gail Kubeka, left,Thandi Klaasen and Dorothy Ma­suku at the Stan­dard Bank Joy of Jazz in 2013.

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