African jazz legend Thandi Klaasen saw and sang through it all; many years of hunger, oppression and an acid bomb thrown into her face.
When she surrendered to life, her memorial drew the finest of the last 50 years – many of whom listened to her rich voice as children.
On a chilly afternoon in Johannesburg, a hall of mourners – musicians, politicians, family and supporters of Klaasen – gathered at the Germiston City Hall, to tell her stories. Strangely, there was not even a single tear. It was a hall filled with clapping and laughter.
There were rows of chairs, in the middle front seated the family wearing white t-shirts with Klaasen’s face printed on them. Baroque floral arrangements flanked the stage, and scores of reporters filled the hallway.
Klaasen died of pancreatic cancer on January 15, at the age of 86 after being admitted to Thelle Mogoerane Hospital in Vosloorus, east of Johannesburg, on December 9, 2016.
To the world, she was known as a music giant with a golden voice, a sense of humor and Tsotsi Taal, a township slang, the language of Sophiatown, where she was born. To her children, she was a mom who loved sharing her stories.
Her daughter Lorraine, also a musician, took to the podium sporting a hat and black and white brogues. The clothes were her mom’s favorite.
She started her five-minute eulogy by greeting the audience: “Sanibonani, dumelang, hoe gaan dit, hoezit?”, a way that Klaasen greeted people.
“My chest is so tight and it’s like somebody put a rope around my throat,” said Lorraine.
“Music made my mom very happy. It was not about how she sang the songs but how the audience reacted.”
Lorraine likened her mom to a rose that looks pretty, but if not watered, wilts and dies.
“Every time my mom visited me in Canada, I took her to schools, senior citizens’ homes and HIV/AIDS foundations; every place where my mom could speak and inspire people I took my mom and so she became alive. But when we came back home, I noticed she was withering away musically.”
It was the end of a story that began in 1931 when the world was in the throes of depression.
Born to a shoemaker father and a domestic worker mother, Klaasen started her career as a teenager, singing in churches for a handful of coins. She decided to become a singer after seeing a jazz group perform at her school.
Not many knew she was also a tap dancer.
Klaasen knew poverty, apartheid and hardship and poured it into her work.
“I had no chance to say goodbye to romance
I had no time to leave it all behind
It was the place I knew
Where my dreams came true
Until they broke it down
These are the lyrics from her popular song, Sophiatown, narrating a sad tale of how black people were removed from the cosmopolitan suburb of Johannesburg.
In 1977, the star was attacked with an acid bomb that disfigured her face and put her in hospital for a year. It is said that a rival hired thugs to assault the singer; to this day, no one knows who it was.
Klaasen used to say: “They have burned the face but not the voice.”
Sadly, the great voice is no more.
She was also well-known for her role in the international musical, King Kong, by composer Todd Matshikiza singing alongside great voices, such as Dorothy Masuka, Dolly Rathebe and Miriam Makeba.
Fellow musician Don Mattera, leaning on a stick, described Klaasen as a queen who never needed protection.
With a career that spanned over five decades, she has received a string of awards, including: The Woman of Distinction Award, in Canada in 1999, and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the South African Music Awards.
Many said they’ll remember Klaasen for her humor, feisty personality and conviviality.
“She had the special gift of making wine disappear in seconds,” said Nandi Ndlovu, a granddaughter, as the hall erupted in laughter.
Legendary musician Abigail Kubeka said Klaasen was a lady of style.
“I remember when she was still married to her husband, Lucas; she once told me that ‘hey Abi, I once cooked because Lucas had asked for a mutton curry’, and as you know she used to love her wine, so she cooked this mutton and it happened that a dish cloth fell into the pot and she wasn’t aware. So she dished up for the husband, so as he was eating with a fork, he noticed a dish cloth. He then asked ‘Thandi, what have you cooked?’.”
Her response was “Ag man, Lucas jy het gese jy soek mutton curry (no man, Lucas you said you wanted mutton curry)”, and then Lucas said “ja mutton curry maar die is ‘n dish cloth curry die (yes, mutton curry, but this is a dish cloth curry)”.
“Rest in peace, Thandi, and don’t cook mutton cloth or dish curry again,” Kubeka said, before getting back to her seat next to Masuka.
Kubeka described Klaasen as a courageous woman who stood up in the face of the apartheid regime.
“She was so brave you took her to London and she was Thandiwe all the way you like or not. She was never apologetic about who she was,” she said.
Zanele Dlamini, 38, who played a young Klaasen at the Market Theatre, a tribute to jazz legends, performed Sophiatown.
“When I first heard that she passed away I was hurt a lot. Playing mama Klaasen wasn’t easy but she helped me a lot even though she wasn’t fine health-wise. I last saw her in August, but before her death, I used to communicate with Lorraine, who told me she wasn’t talking anymore. I wanted her to see herself in me. Even though she was sick I wasn’t ready for her death,” said Dlamini.
“She lived her life; a life of tragedy and finally she’s in peace,” said Lorraine.
To these musicians, she lives on; her song will never die.