Solid as A ROCK
The marriage ofWORLD-RENOWNED musicians LETTA MBULU, 72, and CAIPHUS SEMENYA, 75, has stood the test of time. She tells us how they keep their LOVE ALIVE.
We celebrated 50 years of marriage in May. We didn’t do much – we considered it and then thought, “Listen, we are pooped out with partying ”. We’ve been partying since forever, so we really needed to relax. We are planning on doing a bigger thing later.
When I first laid eyes on Caiphus, I thought he was cute. He was my brother’s friend, and he used to come to my home and hang with my brother. I remember one time he told my brother, ‘I’ve been coming here to see your little sister. One day I’m going to marry her.’ My brother went berserk, so Caiphus said he was just kidding.
We got to know each other when we did King Kong together. I remember in 1958 we were going to Cape Town by train for the show and he was looking out the window, with a huge green apple in his hand. He asked if I’d like a bite of it. I thought about it for a second and then said “okay”. He threw the apple to me, I caught it and took a bite, then sent it back to him. That was really the beginning of things.
When we were in Durban, he asked me to go with him to a movie on one of our nights off. As we were watching the movie, he said, ‘You have this protective ring around you.’ When I asked what he meant, he told me I was so aloof, and that it was hard for him to say certain things to me. I said that he should tell me what he wanted to, which is when he came out with it and told me that he cared about me.
I think Caiphus proposed in 1961 when we were in London. We were about to go home, but he was going to fly to America to do Sponono. He said that he didn’t want to leave things as they were and would like to send his parents to my home to talk to my family. His parents came and talked about lobola and paid everything, and a month later, Caiphus left for the United States.
We had a long-distance relationship for about nine months. I followed him once I’d sorted out my passport. When I got to the States he decided it was time for us to really get married and do this right. We got married in 1966 in Los Angeles, but it wasn’t really a big deal. We just went and signed a marriage certificate. It was me, Caiphus and Hugh Masekela – just the three of us. Later on we went back to New York and Miss [Miriam] Makeba decided to give us a huge party where we had all the South Africans and students who were at Columbia University. It was wonderful.
THERE’S NO FORMULA
I always tell people that if there were a secret formula for a successful marriage, I would be a billionaire. There isn’t one. But I think there are principles that we live by, like loving and respecting one another and understanding the fact that we’ve both got flaws.
When we met we were fully grown with a set of 32 teeth. We were crystallised in our ways, so we had to adjust to that. He has idiosyncrasies that I have to deal with, and I’m the same. So if we understand that, then we realise that maybe we can make it. We also have faith in each other and support each other.
There are so many things that make up a relationship, but like I said, it’s not a formula; it’s things that the two of you create and live by. We thank God every day that we’re still together. We have our ups and downs because we’re human. We sometimes fight and scream at each other but that’s because we care.
We come from families that are very supportive. If we have problems, I’ll call home and they say, ‘Okay, we’re coming’ and they help us sort it out. We also have very good friends who remind us where we’ve come from and they help us to focus.
STAYING AN INDIVIDUAL
As artists, keeping our individuality in marriage has been such a difficult thing. Caiphus and I decided that because we are a pair, we actually need to be separate. What we do is totally different to who we are together. Loving him has nothing to do with my music. I loved music before I met him.
We make sure that we separate our personal and professional lives. He’s my husband, so when we get home, we’re happy
husband and wife. But on stage or at rehearsals we are individuals. If I love a song that he writes, I’ll tell him that I’d like to do it, but he cannot impose a song on me just because he wrote it.
Sometimes he thinks he can talk to me anyhow, but no. At home we can do that, but when I’m at work, it has nothing to do with you. You can advise me but you cannot control me, just like I can’t do that to you. Now and then it becomes an issue but we are careful about it, which is how we’ve survived.
MUSIC IN THE AIR
It’s very difficult to choose my favourite song with Caiphus because we’ve done so many together. But I think the one that really made me pay attention was the song that I did for the miniseries Roots, called Many Rains Ago. There was a history behind it, which my grandmother used to talk to me about, but when I was physically there contributing to the song, it became a different story. Every time I listen to it, I’m moved.
I think I was coming home from Washington when I heard Caiphus playing There’s Music in the Air on the piano. I thought, “That’s interesting.” He wasn’t finished it yet, so I sat and listened. I would say, “That note is wrong. Why don’t you put this one?” He’d give me a look, but when I’d come back, the note would be there.
Eventually the song was done and we found someone to write the lyrics. It was a difficult song for me to perform at first because I’m a contralto and every time I sang it in my natural voice I felt it wasn’t working. So we took the notes up a little bit and there it was.
We are producing an album right now. I’m very excited about it because it’s been almost 10 years since the last one.
I’m also thrilled about a project we’ve been working on since we moved back to South Africa. It is a school of the performing arts, where young people can learn about indigenous African instruments, as well as the basics of music. We want the artists to go to the countryside, listen to the music there and come up with epics indigenous to Africa. For me that’s the project; after that I can die.