Slowly, slowly, Brenda Fassie, the original South African pop diva, seems to be finding her feet again. Charl Blignaut joins her in the studio where she’s recording a new album
Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that there is no way to write a Brenda interview without its being personal. That’s because there really is no such thing as a Brenda “interview”. Every self-respecting hack who’s been around the block has done the “Waiting for Brenda” or “Trying to keep up with Brenda” piece. You don’t “interview” Brenda, you experience her. You could be the recipient of her venom or of her devoted attention. Most likely it’ll be both - with switches happening when you least expect them. Then again, maybe it’s just me. As I said, it’s a personal thing.
The one minute she’s outside crying on the balcony because you’ve really upset her and hurt her career, the next she’s feeding you her lunch. And that’s probably because, like any serious pop star anywhere in the world, Brenda Fassie has a love-hate relationship with the media. I’ve interviewed other famously difficult people like Naomi Campbell and Boy George and have remained reasonably calm. But, without fail, each time I prepare to interview Brenda, I’m deeply on edge for days. Because no matter what you’re thinking, you seldom know what she’ll do next; you’re never quite ready for her. The point is that Brenda Fassie, whether she’s topping the charts or lying in the gutter, is every inch a star. She makes her own rules.
“Follow me,” shouts Brenda, dashing past the couches at reception, “I’m in the middle of a song!” This time it’s a flash of straight bobbed wig and denim shorts. By the time we turn the corner into a corridor of the CSR recording studios in Johannesburg, she has already disappeared from sight.
We enter the studio where Godfrey Pilane, the young producer of her next album, is sitting before his state-of-the-art mixing desks, dials, synthesisers and monitors. He’s picked up the track from where he and Brenda left off and before you can say the words “Hi Godfrey” it’s work as usual.
The intrusion of a clutch of journalists and photographers seems to have no effect on Pilane. I reckon that after three days of working with Brenda he’s already perfectly used to the odd Richter- measurable quake of activity, emotion and/or creativity to come spinning through the small studio.
I settle into a chair to watch them work and I hear Brenda’s vocals on a new song called Love Affair. At first I think it’s a recording, but then I see she’s singing it live. I’ve never seen her so happy - alone with a microphone behind the tinted glass of the sound booth.
I have interviewed Brenda before and I have watched her perform and I think I know the score: The hyper-energetic diva who demands huge amounts of attention but can also be outrageously generous towards her friends. The artist who can be impossible to pin down, but once you do is worth every second of the recording time. The little girl who just wants to be loved but who is now a woman who no longer knows who to trust. The prima donna with a huge appetite for life and other substances. The mother to a teenage son.
But nothing I’d seen or heard or read had prepared me for the experience of watching her record a song last Friday afternoon. Critics and musicians speak of her amazing voice, but you still can’t believe the passion or the spontaneity. Inside the booth her hands fly into the air as she quite literally busks the lyrics to a jazzed-up, slowed-out kwaito tune. A creative connection between singer and producer is one thing, getting tracks in the bag is another. This is the third day that Fassie and Pilane have spent in studio. They have already completed three seriously amazing songs.
When she comes out into the studio they listen to the new track and Brenda starts jiving. “I love my music,” she shouts over the song. “I don’t need you to love my music. As long as I do, it’s okay ...” The photographer starts taking pictures and now Brenda’s really in her moment. For a woman whose career is, according to certain local papers, all but dead, her new track is pretty damn alive.
This is the highlight of Pilane’s career. “I’ve always been a fan,” he tells me later, “and I always wanted to work with Brenda. So when I got the chance I went for it. I write the music and I don’t know what Brenda does, but she comes in and makes the song sound different. We don’t sit down and write lyrics, Brenda just jams and makes her own lyrics ... “
Throughout her career Brenda has been with CCP records, the local division of EMI, headed up by her longtime record boss, Harvey Roberts. He is a constant factor in her professional life and “the only person who can tell me `no’”. And there’s her old friend, Nombulelo, who hovers constantly, and “looks after my fridge”; and Pam Devereux-Harris, who has produced some 17 of Brenda’s astonishing 21 music videos in a 10-year stint in local pop. From Weekend Special onward, her iconography has spread across the dancefloor. From the days when Yvonne was “in love with a DJ” and Brenda was bouncing across Eighties studio backgrounds through to the cover of this art section (which features a still from the most recent of her videos, Kutheni, about Poppie Sihlahla, Brenda’s great love who died).
Bongani, her son, has turned 13. And, yes, Ludwe Maake, her much-publicised 26-year old boyfriend, is still there by her side.
But that consistency has not been the case with her many different personal managers. By now Brenda should have been rich. Instead she’s staying just off Hillbrow in a small flat. Money that should have been invested got spent. Her expensive “former” lifestyle and former lovers are not the only culprits. According to those close to her, several managers have looked after their own interests instead of hers.
“They filled their bellies on me,” she says with increasingly valuable hindsight. One was even convicted of selling pirate copies of her CDs. Many have lacked the professional experience or the staying power. Today she is friends with very few of them. She’s broke, but she’s also on the mend. Things have been far worse. “My flat,” she says when I refer to “the flat”. “It’s my flat. I own it.”
But meanwhile the moment’s over. The photos must stop. There are too many people in the room. Brenda doesn’t want to do an interview today, she wants to record. And she’s hungry. Where’s her food? Exit studio.
Later I bump into Brenda in the corridor and now a whole new scene develops. I remind her that I once did an interview with her for Vrye Weekblad called “In Bed with Brenda”. She gasps and the tears come. That was the beginning of her current decline, she says, and I am to blame. After I have convinced her that it was not my fault; that another publication lifted the story and turned it into what was to become a lesbian drug scandal, we make up. Later I am allowed back into the studio. Finally, as Brenda eats lunch, we talk. And as always, she is completely open about her life.
In several interviews, Brenda has said, “Tell your readers Brenda’s back, okay?” and I, for one haven’t been convinced. But now I sense a difference - and it’s not just in the maturity of the new songs, the R&B rhythms threatening to snake through the pop basslines. We talk about our respective drug habits and she tells me she’s taking less crack, sleeping better more often, eating more.
I ask if I can quote this; after all, we’ve barely just made up from the last time I quoted her. She tells me that she wants me to because people must know she’s trying; that she’s going to the clinic twice a week for injections to help her stop. We agree there’ll always be something else to replace these things. We agree that almost all the other musicians are doing booze or coke, but just don’t admit it. Yet they’re the first to go “Shame, poor Sis Brenda, we must help her get over her habit.” She says they’ve done nothing to help her. I get the feeling that some of Brenda’s desperation has lifted.
Not all of it, of course, because the lady’s got the blues. And I don’t think the blues will ever again leave Brenda Fassie because they’re in her voice. She says she’s lonely. She describes how, after Poppie’s death, she lay in bed and stared at the TV. “I can sing you every single advert,” she says. “What’s your favourite TV show?” I ask. “Everything,” she replies. “I love everything on TV.”
The thing that gets me is that she’s recently worked with both Joe Nina and Arthur. That her last two albums - Abantu Bayakuluma and Now Is the Time - were both musically very exciting. For me, this all makes “the slump in her career” seem even more confounding.
Abantu is a hip-as-hell dance album handled by Arthur. Now Is the Time is more slowed down and features an impeccable duet with African star Papa Wemba. When I ask Brenda what it was like to work with Wemba, she says, “I can’t remember a thing I was so high.” I ask her if I can quote her on that. She insists that I should, if only to show the difference between today’s recording and then, the darkest period of her much-documented coke habit. I, in turn, insist that anyone who made such brilliant material and can’t even remember has got to have something pretty cool going for them.
It’s not Brenda’s creativity that has experienced a slump, it is her image. While today’s young kwaito Brendas flirt with bisexuality live on stage and most men find it a turn on, somehow just saying the word “lesbian” is a turn-off. That, reckons Elliot Makhaya of the Sowetan, the man who wrote the first-ever story on Brenda (while she was rehearsing for a Gibson Kente production) is what hurt her image the most. That’s pop for you. Honesty doesn’t pay. Do the drugs, sleep with whoever you want, just don’t tell.
The South African music industry’s real problem with Brenda, reckons journalist Gwen Ansell, is that she’s a woman that they couldn’t control; a woman who makes her own rules. When I ask Brenda what caused the slump from which she is slowly emerging, she cites none of the above.
“Money,” she says. “I hate money. I give it all away, I spend it. That’s why I’m not a rich girl.” Nobody warned Brenda of the consequences of going triple platinum in her early 20s. “Tonight I’m going to Miss Soweto,” she tells me in parting. “Tell your newspaper’s people to look out for me there. I’ll be looking good.” I assure her I will. As it turns out she was hard to miss. She jumped on stage and shared a microphone with a former foe-turned- “sister”, Rebecca Malope.
“Hey,” she calls out after me, “Tell them I am Miss Soweto!”