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