​Thandi Klaasen: Defying tragedy to do it her way

As hi-fi sets across the country’s townships began issuing their ritual jazz doses on Sunday, news came fluttering in that the song stylist Thandi Klaasen of Sophiatown fame was gone. The 86-year-old had succumbed to pancreatic cancer and a series of strokes. She had been bedridden and without her voice at an Ekurhuleni hospital for months.

As the government made its official announcement, her daughter, Lorraine Klaasen, had also taken to Facebook to confirm the dreaded news: “Today is the day my Mom left us. She passed away this morning peacefully.”

As news cameras and well-wishers descended on their Alberton home, Lorraine would sum up her mother’s life with a simple but loaded phrase: “She lived a life of tragedies. To be able to die peacefully, she did everything her way.”

Tragedy entered the story of Klaasen’s life very early. Being born in 1931, into a South Africa making its transition from colonialism to apartheid, meant that she was going to deal with an existence of struggle.

Born in Sophiatown, to a father who scratched out a living as a shoemaker and a mother who was a domestic worker, launched the singer into the world as a girl of the lower working class who was black in a racist country.

She discovered her capacity and love of singing in her family church as a young girl. It’s a talent that was made all the more promising by the fact of her beauty and the possibilities provided by the unfolding cultural renaissance taking shape in Sophiatown at the time. The scene was alive.

The Drum writers were articulating a literary equivalent to the music. Stars such as Louisa Emmanuel, Thoko Thomo and her group the Lo Six, as well as “blues queen” Emily Kwenane, were paving the way for young black singers like Klaasen.

Sis Peggy’s shebeen and Back of the Moon, with their tragicomic mix of binge drinkers and police raids, provided perennial drinking holes. This is the era of the Harlem Swingers, the Manhattan Brothers and similar male-led bands.

Klaasen was unimpressed with the almost exclusive dominance enjoyed by these “boy bands”. In a kind of feminist intervention, she formed all-female vocal quartet the Quad Sisters. They were a hit. In 1952 their song Carolina Wam was all the rage. It confirmed her as a legitimate star. In fact, Klaasen’s group paved the way for the young Miriam Makeba and her girl group, the Skylarks.

Klaasen’s rising star saw her work with Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz and Variety on a number of shows. In 1961 she would form part of the London cast of King Kong, the iconic musical theatre production that was a lifeline to many pioneers of South African music.

Devised by Todd Matshikiza and Harry Bloom, the production launched many of the era’s stars as international performers, including Makeba and Dolly Rathebe.

In 1977, tragedy struck. The pretty star was attacked with acid. The popular explanation was that “a rival hired thugs to assault the singer”. The assault put her in hospital for about a year and gave her the lifelong scars on her face.

It was a violent incident that could have ended her public life as an entertainer. It didn’t. Klaasen’s resilient spirit carried her through. She recovered and kept on singing.

This kind of violence would have been part of her life from the start. To be a singer in Sophiatown, for instance, meant that, more often than not, the young Klaasen would perform for gangs and thugs as her primary patrons at shebeens, clubs and halls.

It’s a point that was often made by Klaasen’s late friend, Makeba. She spoke of how the gang leaders often wanted to claim the prettiest girl in the house for themselves. As performing stars, they had to be good-looking and were hence on the gangsters’ radar. So, as young beauties, they had to live with the violence of unwanted male attention, advances that they turned down at the risk of physical harm.

The thug-infested culture is central to understanding Klaasen’s mystique. The fast talking, the performative machismo and the no-nonsense tough-girl bravado are all Sophiatown pantsula grammar. They informed even her styling and treatment of songs. The staccato rolled off her tongue like the rhythm of a tsotsi’s knife stab. She even used the pinkie-finger gesture for emphasis.

The importance of Sophiatown to Klaasen’s artistic and personal identity is legendary. The then government’s decision to pass the Natives Resettlement Act of 1954, which rezoned Sophiatown as a whites-only area, gave rise to a pain she testified to every time she went on stage. She shared the nostalgia with former president Nelson Mandela, who declared her his favourite singer. Klaasen was often called on to perform at his parties.

Her song Sophiatown is perhaps the greatest musical ode to that era and place. The earlier versions of the song find Klaasen in fine form. The velvet-smooth contralto, the easy swing and the finger-snapping syncopation are carried by the real melancholy of the song. The story of broken lives and homes snuffed out by a brutal state is sung with acute sensitivity.

But Klaasen also had a deep capacity for humour, which she deployed with impish licence in her music. In a recent interview, lifelong friend Abigail Kubeka waxed lyrical about Klaasen’s devil-may-care approach to performance. “Thandie would at times not even bother to learn the words to a song. She would just scat and invent her own lyrics.”

But part of the tragedy of Klaasen’s life is that she went on singing even past her capacity to do so. There’s a video clip of her singing at an African Musicians Against HIV/Aids event in Botshabelo, Bloemfontein. She did an a cappella take on My Way, the pop song made popular and jazzed up by Frank Sinatra.

Already in her 80s, Klaasen struggles to carry the song as she would have in her glorious youth. The notes begin with promising intensity and a defiant will to win; however, as her voice lilts with the melody, age and a worn body fail her.

It’s a scene that has played out many times before in the lives of greats in the winter of their years, like Miles Davis’s flopping trumpet lines in his late 80s or latter-day Billie Holiday as she succumbed to drug use and years of hard living.

Klaasen stands with a mic in hand in a visibly hot and humid tent in dusty Botshabelo. Her grey wig blankets a face that is resisting wrinkles thanks to an identity-marking scar. “I did it … and I’ll keep doing it my way,” she sings.

The famous graceful contralto is no more. Her scatting lacks the vitality of the pantsula verve that made her a name. She gasps, throws in some tsotsitaal to survive the song she sang so many times before with ease. The crowd claps in sympathetic cheer, knowing little of her inner struggle.

A few months afterwards, Klaasen would be hospitalised, suffer a stroke and then die.

The music, the memories and the accolades, like the Order of the Baobab in gold that she received in 2006, are all that remains.

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