/ 18 December 2006

Theatre personality Taliep Petersen killed

“I’m living a life and a half. I’ve gone through different lives. I’ve been blessed, successful, thank God. I’m very grateful.”

These were words spoken by the late Taliep Petersen in a 2005 interview with the Cape Argus.

But now the South African theatre and music industry will have to adapt to a different life, a life without the profound and historic musician and writer, who portrayed the lives of Cape coloureds and the Malay culture on the stage.

The co-director of seven South African musicals, Petersen was shot dead by armed robbers in his Athlone, Cape Town, house on Saturday evening, December 16.

Ironically, according to an interview with The Property Magazine, Petersen had been determined to move to the City Bowl area (central Cape Town or Bo-Kaap) for a long time, but stayed in Athlone — a predominantly Muslim suburb — because he wanted to be close to his community.

He sold the two properties he had bought in the Bo-Kaap to his sister and to the editor of the Star, Moegsien Williams, because his sister wanted the first one and his children didn’t like the second one. “So I never got to live in Bo-Kaap. At least not yet,” he had said in the interview. And now he never will.

His most recent theatrical success — the 2005 musical, Ghoema, which is currently on tour in London for the holiday season after winning three Cape Fleur du Cap awards — will have to go on without one half of its creative power. Ghoema explores the journey of slave music in South Africa from the 1600s onwards.

“That is what Taliep would have wanted. Ghoema is a tribute to him and we will perform Ghoema with Taliep in our hearts,” said Peterson’s director partner and long-time friend, David Kramer, from London.

“Taliep will live on in the music we made together. I will miss him deeply.

“Taliep and I were very close. He was my friend and confidante for many years. Although we came from very different backgrounds — he District Six, me the Boland — we shared a similar vision: trying to tell South African stories with our stories and music,” said Kramer.

The Afrikaans pop-singer and Petersen had a 20-year musical relationship and together were responsible for writing and directing District Six, Fairyland (1992), Crooners (1992), Poison (1992), Klop Klop (1996) and Kat and the Kings (1995).

Fairyland won an FNB Vita award for best musical while the 1995 production of Kat and the Kings, set in District Six, played in London’s West End, Germany and The Netherlands. It played more than 150 times on Broadway in New York and won the Laurence Olivier award for best new musical of 1999, while its cast collectively won the award for best performance.

Based on the 1960s forced removal of the coloured community from a Cape Town suburb, District Six opened in 1986 at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre. After sell-out shows in South Africa it was invited to the Edinburgh festival in Scotland.

“I always wanted to tell the story about District Six,” Petersen told the website, Cape Town Magazine.

“And I knew I wanted to do [District Six] with David, whom I met during a concert at the University of Cape Town. When I moved back to Cape Town, I had a priority list. On top of that list I had ‘hooking up with David’, to write and produce District Six.”

Petersen was born in District Six in 1950 and got involved in music at a very young age. As a teenager he won the Post newspaper Mr Entertainment competition in 1968/69, after which he entered the professional arena by joining Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz and Variety Roadshow, which toured South Africa and Mozambique.

In 1979 he studied at the Fitznell School of Music in Surrey, United Kingdom, and was so inspired by the UK’s West End shows that he wrote a revue based on his memories of New Year in Cape Town. This revue was called Carnival à la District Six.

Petersen’s first role in musical theatre was as a cast member of the touring production Hair in Maseru, Lesotho, followed by performances in Godspell and Pippin.

In the 1980s, he started a successful band called Sapphyre, who played in hotels all over the country. The band released an album called Rosa, which reinterpreted traditional Cape Malay songs in a modern style.

In a 2005 interview with the Cape Argus, Petersen said: “I’m a workaholic, involved in a zillion things. I come from a hard space in time, remember — I’m a proud child of District Six. I played in white clubs and had to enter through the back door, and I wasn’t allowed to mingle with the crowd.”

In 2001 Petersen worked on a 13-part television series on the history of District Six, called O’se Distrik Ses, which has won numerous awards in South Africa. He conceived a television sitcom called Alie Barber, for which he wrote the songs in 2002. Due to its success, they filmed a second series.

He returned to music in 2006 when he launched his first Afrikaans album, Deur Dik En Dun. Jane Mayne of the Tonight (the entertainment section of the Star) said the songs on the album remained “true to the vogue of stage musicals” and Petersen brought “the legacy of District Six to the present”.

He was the presenter and musical director of Joltyd, a television series in which local minstrel troupes compete.

Petersen, along with Deon Maas and Mynie Grove, was a judge for the Afrikaans version of Idols on television channel Kyknet in 2006, for which he and his family received death threats before the show had even started.

His wife was held up at gunpoint outside their house in May while Petersen was in Namibia helping audition Idols hopefuls. He also received death threats on his phone, ordering him not to appear on the show.

Despite the threats, Petersen decided to continue with the show and was a judge on it until it ended in August.

Maas wrote in Beeld newspaper on Monday that Petersen was “one of those people that always made you feel like he knew you”.

Addressing his last words to Petersen directly he wrote: “Taliep, you made a great impression on me; more than you’ll ever know. When I met you it changed my life. You were a gentleman, a prophet, a leader. You were a man that, even though you had achieved great success, you were still true to your community … I will miss you.”

Grove, who was also quoted in Beeld, said: “I’m celebrating Taliep’s life because he was a leader, a brother and a spiritual inspiration. Every second that I shared with him will be written in my heart forever.”

Jody Abrahams, one of the actors in Ghoema, was reported on news24.com as saying that he owed his entire career to Petersen.

“He was like a father to me. Sitting here in London now, just makes it all the more difficult. It’s difficult to digest everything when one is so far away from home.”

Petersen’s Muslim burial service took place on Sunday at a mosque in St Athens way Athlone.