South African singer Thandi Klaasen has died at the age of 86 after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer recently. News of her death was announced on the Facebook page of her daughter, singer Lorraine Klaasen. She wrote: “Today is the day my Mom left us. She passed away this morning peacefully. Thank you all for your kind words and prayers.”
Thandi Klaasen was known and celebrated for being a member of the era defining singers who emerged from Sophiatown, a racially mixed cultural and artistic hub where South African jazz took shape from the 1950s, until it was “brought down”, as her song Sophiatown relayed in 1956.
Born in Sophiatown in 1931 to a shoemaker father and a domestic worker mother, Klaasen decided to embark on a career in music after a jazz band visited her school as a child. By the time she was a teenager, she was performing in churches and other local spots but during this time, she was severely injured when a caustic mix of petroleum and thinners was thrown at her face, causing permanent damage to her facial skin and a 12 month hospital stay.
Despite the tragedy, the raspy-voiced Klaasen went on to be one of contemporary revered singers with Sophie Mgcina, Dorothy Masuka, Dolly Rathebe and Miriam Makeba, whom she performed with. Klaasen’s career flourished and she travelled to London as a cast member in Todd Matshikiza’s King Kong. She traveled to many countries, gaining a reputation as a jazz singer but also branching out in range to share stages with singers like Roberta Flack and Patti LaBelle.
Klaasen was the recipient of awards both locally and internationally, the most significant being the Presidential Order of the Baobab from President Jacob Zuma in 2006.