Bongani Madondo’s book is published by Picador Africa. Among the essays in it is That Old Brenda Magic by Andrew Herold, from which this edited extract is taken.
To get some perspective on what Brenda Fassie as a performer meant to me, I have to go back a long way, to the year 1978 to be exact and to Bob Dylan to be specific.
Along with thousands of others perched on the hard ground at Blackbushe Aerodrome in Surrey, outside London, England, I soaked up a sunny afternoon of music from the likes of Graham Parker, Joan Armatrading and Eric Clapton, waiting for the man we had all come to see. A month before I had seen Dylan perform at Earls Court, but this was something else: a massive outdoor concert that promised much.
The occasion would not disappoint. The sleeve of Eric Clapton’s Backless LP opens out on a photograph of the legendary guitarist in silhouette taken that day, looking out towards the massive crowd. If you look at the blur of faces below the neck of Clapton’s guitar you can almost make me out. I’m the guy with the Afro somewhere near the front.
Being British-born with a black South African father and a white English mother I had developed eclectic musical tastes. But as an aspiring singer-songwriter, I idolised Dylan.
During my years of living in England I had attended many concerts, but nothing quite like this. What Dylan played with his band was awesome, but as evening fell the great man treated us to a solo acoustic set of some of his best songs. Suddenly there was a communion of audience and performer I had never known before.
We who had come to pay homage at the altar of Dylan were witness to one of his most heartfelt and intimate performances. It still lived large in my mind years later when I fulfilled a lifelong dream and came to live in an apartheid-free South Africa. By this time a balding crew cut had replaced the Afro, but my passion for music remained.
I had been in South Africa less than a year when I accompanied my friend Sandile Ngema to the State Theatre in Pretoria where he was rehearsing with Ray Phiri’s band for a Freedom Day show. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ray, Hugh Masekela, Sibongile Khumalo and Miriam Makeba was a thrill for me.
After rehearsals we left, to return the following day for the show’s performance, with Sandile playing bass in Ray’s band. Once Ray’s set was over I followed Sandile outside, where another concert was under way. Not far from the theatre complex a large crowd had congregated in front of a stage at the far end of a square. Stimela were in the middle of their set, and as an ex-band member familiar with their songs, Sandile plugged in his bass and jammed with them.
As time wore on the crowd swelled. One local favourite after another took to the stage: Mango Groove, Tshepo Tshola, Yvonne Chaka Chaka … they kept on coming as I basked in the privilege of my backstage pass and joined the crowd’s applause.
Only as the sun began to set did I notice a woman sitting in a car to one side of the stage. The light from the open door highlighted the lines of her face as she smoked what I assumed was a joint.
I had heard the stories about Brenda – the unreliability, the suicide attempts, the scandals and the drugs, the run-ins with her long-time collaborator Sello “Chicco” Twala, the death of her lesbian lover. Had she come to perform, I wondered, or was she just another observer, finding reflections of her own once-illustrious career in the performance of others?
She got out of the car and walked around, a coat draped over her slim shoulders. How lonely she looked, fragile and vulnerable.
While in London I had come across her music at the homes of South African friends and even at ANC-fundraising parties, but it was while living in Zambia that I had first become acquainted with the sounds of Brenda and the Big Dudes, a big name promising big things. Songs such as Higher and Higher and Weekend Special brought their distinctive brand of Afro-pop to a large, appreciative audience, and that distinctive soaring voice at the heart of every song.
One of the boys
In early publicity shots Brenda was just one of the boys, a member of the band, but as she blossomed into a solo artist the poses became more confident, the smile cheeky but also enigmatic.
There was little trace of that confidence now as she wandered around backstage, holding the coat tightly around herself as if preventing something vital from escaping. By my calculations she was barely into her 30s but she looked much older, worn down by her own hectic lifestyle.
I was chatting to Mango Groove’s Claire Johnston when a crescendo of cheers from the crowd almost drowned out our conversation. I turned and there was Brenda centre-stage, singing her heart out, that voice pure and strong as it sailed out to all corners of the square.
In my memory’s eye she was wearing a white hot pants suit, but in truth I cannot be sure. What I do remember vividly is the crowd’s reaction to her presence. Every other act had been greeted with enthusiastic applause, but this was fervent adoration bordering on hysteria.
And she responded to the audience’s love by delivering a performance of such vibrancy and heart that it took my breath away. The stage belonged to her. As she sang the crowd was passionately present, greeting the end of every song with tumultuous applause.
Audience and performer could not be separated; it was as if Brenda received her strength from the crowd, as if they had brought her into existence, moulding her into the singer and performer they wanted her to be before releasing her into the universe to do their bidding.
And just like them, I was spellbound, caught up in every gesture, every note. That she was performing here at a free concert seemed wholly appropriate, for it was clear that she was the people’s performer, that everything she did, she did for them.
After she left the stage the concert was over. Nothing could follow that.
In the days that followed I would think of what I had seen and could not get the image of Brenda out of my mind. Occasionally my thoughts would wander back to Dylan and Blackbushe, the last time I had seen such a fervent outpouring of emotion and admiration from an audience towards a performer.
But Brenda had surpassed that experience in my consciousness, for her audience had been part of what made her perform so passionately. As great as Dylan had been, there was still a sense that he was impervious to the love and devotion coming his way, that without it he would have carried on the same.
Not so with Brenda. It was as if her talent came from a source outside of herself, that without the support and love she would wither and die.
I followed her career with more than a passing interest. The music kept on coming, but it was the sensationalist aspects of her career that the media zeroed in on. The demise of Brenda was always imminent; the drugs and the booze had taken hold, the voice was gone, there was nothing left.
And then just when we all believed it might be true and that she really was a spent force, another album would be released to be gobbled up by her adoring public, that soaring voice taking no prisoners. There she was at the apex of South African musical achievement, the yardstick against whom all others would be measured.
Yet if you looked closely there were signs of decline. The gaps between albums got longer while the list of songs on each album got shorter. Music was Brenda’s life force, but everything else seemed to drain her while destroying her will to create.
The yearning to sing was powerful, but how long could it sustain her?
I last saw her in a Jo’burg nightclub in the early hours of a Saturday morning. Most people had deserted the dance floor but there she was, a lone figure under the flashing lights as she swayed her body to the beat. The eyes were dulled by drink and a smile was plastered almost comically across her face. She looked old beyond her years, with none of the vitality photographers had captured on album covers.
If anyone recognised her they left her alone, perhaps wary of that infamous Brenda volatility. To me she looked lost, unsure of her place in the world.
It was a few short months later that a friend told me that Brenda Fassie was dead. I heard the words but refused to believe them, did not want to accept that she was really gone. And when I discovered that reports of her death had been premature and that she was still clinging to life in Sunninghill Hospital in a critical condition, I could sense yet another comeback. That she was still in the land of the living confirmed everything I had come to know about her.
She would not die; she would bounce back as she had many times in the past to weave her musical magic. Surely she would recover to resume her place at South Africa’s cultural heart.
But when on the following day I heard on my car radio that Brenda Fassie was dead I forced myself to consider that maybe this time it was true; that perhaps this time the curtain had fallen and there would be no more comebacks.