The strength in Armatrading
British singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Joan Armatrading (64) is three years younger than my mother, and the first thing I say to her when she phones from the United Kingdom to talk about her impending tour to South Africa is that I remember, when I was a boy, listening to The Weakness in Me, her classic bittersweet ballad about a woman caught up in a clandestine affair.
In my memory, it's late summer and I'm wearing khaki school shorts and playing Monopoly with my cousins while Armatrading's smoky alto voice, which brings to mind Tracy Chapman, sings in the background: 'Why do you come here/ When you know I've got troubles enough?/ Why do you call me/ When you know I can't answer the phone?'
To a certain generation of music fans – my mother's, say – Armatrading, who burst on to the scene in 1972 with her acclaimed debut album, Whatever's for Us, is synonymous with some of the canonical love songs of the 1970s and 1980s – The Weakness in Me, Love and Affection and Drop the Pilot.
Hers has been a steady and prolific career, although not wildly successful in the commercial stakes. To date, she has released 18 studio albums, which have sold more than 10-million copies cumulatively, and she holds the distinction of being the first black British singer-songwriter to strike it big internationally.
Armatrading was born on the Caribbean island of St Kitts in December 1950 as one of six children. Her working-class parents (her father was a carpenter and her mother held a succession of poor-paying jobs) were part of the SS Windrush generation of West Indian immigrants who moved to the UK after World War II.
They lived in Birmingham and the three-time Grammy Award nominee says her musical career began when she was "about 11 or 12". A self-confessed "comedyphile" and a big fan of the classic BBC radio series Round the Horne, she started out composing "funny little limericks, funny little short stories" on her mother's piano.
"I was born to write – this is why I'm here," she said. The turning point of her musical apprenticeship came several years later, circa 1964, when she bought her first guitar for £3. "My mother didn't have the £3," she said, chuckling. So she pawned two of her mother's old prams.
A year later, at 15, she dropped out of school to get a job to support her family while she played small gigs on the side. It's a decision she has never quite become reconciled to, even though she shot to fame a few years later. But, in 2001, Armatrading completed a bachelor of arts degree in history through the Open University, which named her as one of its trustees after she graduated.
Having to study by correspondence while constantly touring was tough though. "I had to finish my essays earlier than usual and mail them from whatever country I was at," she said. Education is close to her heart and, in 2008, she joined the Campaign for Female Education, a British-based nongovernmental organisation.
Armatrading is giving concerts at the Joburg Theatre later this month, titled Anthems of Democracy, marking 20 years of democracy in South Africa. "I feel really honoured to have been asked to take part in this," she said.
In 1999, Armatrading wrote another of her more famous songs, a tribute to Nelson Mandela, The Messenger, which she performed at the Westminster Hall with the Soweto Gospel Choir when the legendary statesman died in December last year.
But for most of her career she has resisted writing overtly political material and I ask her what it was like growing up in Birmingham as the daughter of black immigrant working-class parents. "I have never had the experience of what we talk about when we talk about those things. [My parents] came to England and they just mixed in with the people." Unwittingly, they taught her the message that has been central to her life: "It's all about people and being together."
Joan Armatrading, Bright Blue, Jennifer Ferguson, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse, Victor Masondo, Mzwakhe Mbuli, Themba Mkhize and the Soweto Gospel Choir will be performing in the Mandela at the Joburg Theatre as part of the Anthems of Democracy concert on Thursday April 24 at 7.30pm, Saturday April 26 at 3pm and 7.30pm and Sunday April 27 at 3pm. Tickets range from R160 to R300 and can be bought from joburgtheatre.com or by calling 0861 670 670.