Sophiatown singer ‘taught us how to be free; and that was fabulous’
AN AFRICAN proverb tells us that it takes a village to raise a child. Thandi Klaasen was such a village, and we are all her children.
The passing of the jazz legend has led to an outpouring of sentiments and statements about the importance and the role she played.
Speaking at the Klaasen family home as legends gathered together to pay respects, Mam Letta Mbulu, a great musician in her own right, said “she taught us how to be free; and that was fabulous.”
Indeed, we will remember her for her indomitable spirit. It was an assertion of freedom. It was a political statement. She spoke her mind. She sang from the heart. She sang truth to the powers that be, touching our spirits and making us complete beings in a world where apartheid was hell-bent on divide and rule and things were falling apart.
During her time overseas, she sang with other global legendary musicians.
Her strength of spirit was coupled with her enduring will. How much she must have suffering in the petrol attack at such a tender age, yet she recovered and succeeded.
The great trumpeter Stompie Manana said he and other artists visited her while she recovered in hospital, and after her recovery, they went on to perform in 32 shows around the world.
The fact that Klaasen never allowed the petrol attack to stunt the growth of her career, or to permanently damp her spirit, will remain an inspiration for generations to come.
She embodied the parable of a rose that grew from concrete – as the protagonist articulates and celebrates in Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise.
Her life is living proof of hope even in times of darkness.
Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that she was one of uTata Nelson Mandela’s alltime favourite artists.
Renowned poet Dr Don Mattera, in a poetic tribute he composed on Klaasen’s death, said: “She lived and died in the arms of a great, loving reputation of human service and caring love for her people and her beloved country. Indeed, she was a beacon of love and unstoppable energy that brought meaning to the lives of millions of music lovers.”
He further reminisces: “Tsotsi taal was part of her artistic soul – just like the late Dolly Rathebe and other cityslicker ‘susters and breekates van Kofifi’. She spoke and lived the art of ‘Wietie’ – as we called it. It was part of our survival.”
It was this embrace of Sophiatown and its wonders that defined and fed the musical genius of Klaasen.
Her loss marks the end of an era. Born and bred in Sophiatown, she enriched its sounds and melodies. She embraced its language and inimitable cultural tradition.
Her song Sophiatown recalls the vibrancy of the place and of the times.
Besides the personal obstacles that Klaasen faced head-on, there was also the systemic oppression under apartheid, which also suppressed freedom of speech and artistic freedom.
To flourish during that time was difficult and dangerous. The levels of tenacity, perseverance, physical hardship and fortitude of this generation of artists still needs to be fully told.
A few years ago, when she accepted a Woman of Destiny Award, she said: “I am happy to be with people with such loving hearts. They can burn my face, but not my voice. My face is not Thandi Klaasen; I am Thandi Klaasen.”
In a move aimed at preserving this invaluable contribution to our cultural heritage, the Department of Arts and Culture supported the Divas of Kofifi production, which opened on August 11, 2016 at the Market Theatre. It paid tribute to Klaasen, Dorothy Masuku and Abigail Kubeka.
The courageous spirit of Klaasen was still evident at 85 years old, as she joined the cast at the end of the play to perform with all her heart and soul.
So our world is poorer with the passing of Mama Thandi Klaasen. In the same breath, we are also so much richer, having heard her sing and having known her.
While we mourn her loss, we take solace in the fact that future generations can learn from her enthralling journey. For that we will always be grateful.
We are assisting in documenting life stories through our Living Legends Legacy Project so that these narratives and life experiences become part of the great South African story.
The radiant splendour of her music will continue to attract new audiences in the time to come.
Our message to her family, her fellow travellers and fans worldwide is that as we take her legacy forward together, we too have been taught in her village and we too are the children of Thandi Klaasen.
Rest in peace, Mama Thandi Klaasen. Lala ngoxolo Mbokodo.
MEMORIES: Poet and singer Mzwakhe Mbuli, Gauteng Premier David Makhura, Gauteng Infrastructure Development MEC Nandi MayathulaKhoza and MMC and PR councillor in City of Tshwane, Nozipho Tyobeka, at the Eden Park home of jazz legend Thandi Klaasen to offer condolences on behalf of the Gauteng government.