Madondo narrows in on Brenda Fassie's 'Dickensian' life
Despite missing dates and facts in the late singer's life, Bongani Madondo's latest collection of essays attempts to make sense of MaBrrr's epic life.
I’m Not Your Weekend Special: Portraits on the Life+Style & Politics of Brenda Fassie, edited by Bongani Madondo (Picador Africa)
The story of Brenda “MaBrrr” Nokuzola Fassie is not one that belongs to her exclusively. It is a story that exists in South Africa’s collective memory and is often best told by those willing to not forget it. Since stepping into the mainstream in the early 1980s, the legend of MaBrrr has been passed on like oral legends told to children.
It is an African tale, and Fassie knows it. “Thank you my Africa, I wouldn’t be what I am without you,” she belts out in the opening of her 1989 hit track Umuntu Ngu Muntu Ngabanta. The Brenda narrative is one of love found, love lost, lows and highs (most times induced by illegal substances).
The story of the Cape Town-born singer is steeped in mystery fraught with loose ends, missing dates and facts. But it tends to be relayed by those who have felt her phenomenon with believable hearsay and regurgitated tidbits. But in a country with such a deep folkloric tradition, what are facts anyways? In the case of Bongani Madondo’s latest book of essays on the singer, they are nothing at all.
“I’m Not Your Weekend Special is not hung up on facts; neither does it go out to misrepresent,” states its editor, Madondo. The Rolling Stone writer notes also: “I have spoken to all of those responsible for launching or helping her [Fassie] find her place in the showbiz sun … They all cling to one or the other narrative thread. None completely true. None completely false. They are just that. Stories. Life stories.”
And it’s in this fashion that I’m Not Your Weekend Special plays out. The collection is filled with descriptive interviews with the singer, intellectual musing of the social landscape that Fassie inhabited, and plain old feelings about South Africa’s “problem child”, as the book’s contributor, journalist and playwright Duma Ndlovu, calls her. From legendary trumpeter Hugh Masakela’s sketches of having “sleepless marathons” with the grown-up child star, to MaBrrr’s lover Tshelung Tseko reliving driving a comatose Fassie to the hospital two weeks before her death, Madondo has brought together almost 20 contributors to share their experience of Fassie with readers – no matter how well they knew the singer.
While introducing the enigmatic character to readers, in punchy sentences and witty aphorisms, Madondo suggests that the story of Fassie does not begin in the year of her birth, 1963, in the belly of Cape Town’s township, Langa.
“It is a story with no discernible start and will never have an emphatic ending,” he writes. According to Madondo, her “life and artistic story … is the story of modernity… [it’s] the birth of contemporary South Africa … it is the story of the ‘Qua’ Chief Autshumao, of Krotoa … of the smart Sarah Baartman … And of the San” and so on.
Tracing the Fassies’s genealogical roots, Madondo goes on a quest to emaXhoseni (rural Eastern Cape) and Cape Town – where her musical father Matthew Mangaliso Fassie eventually moved to and raised 12 (or 11, it is unclear) children with his piano-playing wife, Makokosie. While meeting a wise sage in Indwe, close to Lady Frere in the Eastern Cape, or discovering that the Fassies are from the Dlomo lineage (the same clan the Mandelas belong to) in an attempt to add some accuracy to MaBrrr’s history, Madondo unearths something greater: the book’s overarching tone. It is told to him in a rondavel, way after midnight, by a possibly long-lost relative of the Fassies: Zolile Tyobeka, who Madondo seeks for help tracing the singer’s origins.
“Sometimes we tell stories we know nothing about. Sometimes we spend months far away from home chasing secrets of our dead. It’s our lot.” And that is exactly what Madondo did: he spent years writing this book. But he delivers what he calls her “Dickensian” story in only four parts of the over 20-chapter book.
There is space for Madondo to expand. The “proto-fictional life” – as he describes it – of Fassie’s forms part of epic narratives, in which anti-heroes disturb the peace, wake up those asleep and open the minds that have long been shut to usher in a new order. Or as Duma Ndlovu quips: “Like a hurricane”, MaBrrr left “confusion behind in a manner that only Brenda Fassie can”.
Despite I’m Not Your Weekend Special missing certain facts and figures from Fassie’s chronology, the part of the story that Madondo and South Africans know for sure is that in 1983, the year that iconic Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera aptly refers to as “the mid-point of the scream”, Fassie’s hit track Weekend Special, changed the course of Mzansi history.
Contributors such as musician Melvyn Matthews, who composed the hit, and author Sam Mathe depict this particular slice of South African history with great detail. Like millions of South Africans, Madondo – who first met Fassie in the mid-nineties while working for City Press – was (and most probably still is) infatuated with MaBrrr. He admits to it when describing how he came about editing I’m Not Your Weekend Special. “After numerous stop-starts, this book simply desired to be a ‘Love Letter’, with capital ‘Ls’,” emphasises Madondo, also the co-creator of MaBrrr: The Musical.
And despite Madondo oozing his fanboy feelings for the star as a prepubescent child in Hammanskraal, later on the book departs from being a love letter and becomes a text more meaty. With the exception of just a few essays, it’s interesting to read how Fassie’s life came to be, how she lived it out and how she affected the lives of the contributors.
At the height of Madonna’s 1980s fame, South Africa had its very own bad girl – plus some. A black lesbian, drug-taking feminist, Fassie was unafraid to bare all to a conservative South African audience. She was a political maverick who sang songs about having a black president, Nelson Mandela, when censorship by the apartheid government was at its climax. MaBrrr, as Madondo writes it, defied “Calvinistic South Africa’s parochialism … [but] belonged to the constellation of tragic black musical stars the world over.” And like the buzzing sound in your ear long after the concert, the life of the late Fassie renders itself alive and almost tangible. Or maybe it is recollections such as Madondo’s long-awaited book that help us to not forget. Either way, long live Brenda Fassie.