Thandi Klaasen, who died recently, deserves to be remembered as we celebrate International Women’s Day today.
8 March 2017
Today is International Women’s Day with the theme #BeBoldForChange. It is a day in which we highlight the struggle for women’s rights and acknowledge the important role of women in our society.
This blog could think of no better way to honour this day than to pay tribute to the memory of Thandi Klaasen who died in January this year. She died an icon of South African entertainment, revered as one of our leading jazz singers and honoured by government at the highest level.
But it wasn’t an easy road. In truth, it was a struggle of epic proportions. She fought for her place in the sun in a male dominated industry. She overcame adversity. She proved the gentler sex was as tough as nails and the equal of any man.
At her burial she received the send-off befitting an entertainer of her stature. In a funereal sort of way, it was all glitz and glamour. Sombre, stylish, elegant and upbeat in places.
Yet, life most times was far from stylish and elegant for the 86-year-old jazz diva who died after a lengthy illness with pancreatic cancer.
Thandi came from very humble roots in Johannesburg’s Sophiatown, a place that held the same place in people’s hearts as Cape Town’s District 6.
In the social and cultural milieu that was a politically switched on Sophiatown, Thandi learnt the art of survival and succeeding, the latter if only in the context of apartheid South Africa.
In her youth she sang in church choirs before linking in the Fifties with a couple of vocal groups like the Quad Sisters, Gaieties and the Haarlem Swingsters who were all into the very popular swing jazz sound of that time.
It was the start of a singing career that would span six decades and see her perform with SA women of note like Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, Sophie Mgcina.
She went on to perform in the internationally acclaimed black South African play, King Kong and worked in London for her while. She also lived temporarily in Canada with her singer daughter Lorraine where she used to address gatherings about her life in apartheid South Africa.
But her comfort zone was the stage in Southern Africa – from the clubs in Cape Town in the Sixties and Seventies to the cabaret circuit in the neighbouring states.
It was here she thrilled audiences with her excitement-plus performances. She did not let a badly disfigured face – the result of burns inflicted in a brutal attack in her young days – hold her back.
Journalist Sylvia Vollenhoven and author of the top selling novel Keeper of The Kumm that also dealt a women’s struggle in a male-dominated environment was one who knew Thandi well. So too did two of Cape Town’s best known entertainers, Terry Fortune and Dave Bestman. All had decades-long friendships with Thandi. She left an indelible mark on all three.
Sylvia says she first met Thandi Klaasen at the iconic 70s jazz joint in Athlone called The Beverley Lounge. Terry, just starting on his own career, and Thandi were on the bill.
“Terry was making a spectacular phonetic mess of the Click Song (one of Thandi’s signature tunes at the time). I was so tense when I saw that Thandi was on the bill because I had helped Terry cobble together the lyrics by listening to a Makeba album, over and over,” Sylvia recalled.
“But Thandi laughed long and loud at the fake Xhosa. We all joined in as if she had given us permission to laugh at our neuroses about not speaking black languages.
“It was probably the only time in the decades I knew her that she made me relax.
“Encounters with Thandi were always robust affairs . . . sometimes great, sometimes bruising but never ever boring.
“One time she stood up on stage at the Artscape Theatre with her left arm in a cast. She told the audience that her close friend had fought with her and broke her arm. And then out of the blue she mentioned me by name and gave a version of a drunken fall in my kitchen that was pure fantasy.
“But it was an entertaining fantasy that had the audience eating out of her plastered hand.
“There were times that I wished I had never met her. Then there were times when the gentle, vulnerable and extremely humble side of Thandi would creep up on me and catch me unawares.
Then of course she would get up on that stage and love coupled with adoration was my only option. She gave big chunks of herself when she performed and when the curtain came down she made huge demands on everyone close to her.
“Paying tribute to Thandiwe Klaasen (she always liked it when I used her full name because that’s what her mother called her) is not easy. Thandi was not easy. She was the quintessential artist . . . tempestuous, selfish, delightful and plagued by a destructive streak that constantly threatened to get the better of her.
“Few people realise that in the background there was always one person who constantly came to pick up the pieces, who made sure she had a gig when she was particularly down, who was with her until the end . . . Lorraine Klaasen who looks remarkably like her mother and is an international artist in her own right, was way more than just a dutiful daughter.
“Over the years she played the role of agent, financial manager and tough-love counsellor when the drinking threatened to get out of hand. I doubt that Thandi, who was always hovering on the edge, would have held it all together over the years if it were not for her daughter.
“So a tribute to Thandi almost has to be a tribute to Lorraine at the same time.”
Terry admits he was in awe of Thandi when she performed at The Beverley Lounge in Athlone.
“I wasn’t even an entertainer then but I made sure she knew who I was,” Terry recalled.
“We became really good friends when our paths crossed on the cabaret circuit and became even closer when she shared digs with me in London. It was a one-room bedsitter and we had to share the bed!
“We also shared lots of bottles of Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels. Thandi loved a good time and she would cast inhibition to the wind when she got going.
“On her 50th birthday in London, we went out and partied hard. On our way home in the train, well-oiled, Thandi felt the need to go. There was no way she could hold her pee in, so she simply said, ‘Terry, hou dop vi’ my’, and let it all hang out in the aisle. That was Thandi, living life on the edge.”
Terry’s tribute on his Facebook page read: “Thandi was special, she was a great performer and lived life to the full, her rendition of My Funny Valentine will stay with me always love you Sister. RIP”
Dave Bestman was another who also saw all sides of Thandi Klaasen. “She was one helluva person and a helluva singer,” he said. “I worked with her back in the day and she could certainly work a crowd.
“One of the things I admired most about her was she wasn’t shy to give you her opinion, whether you wanted to hear it or not.
“I don’t know how many times I heard her tell anyone who cared to listen that South African singers were as good, if not better, than the overseas acts. She would say, quite strongly: ‘why would you want to get Tina Turner here, when you’ve got me’.
“That is the type of person she was – she believed in herself and her ability and that of other South African performers.”
I too was on the receiving end of Thandi’s sharp tongue. As a young journalist with the Cape Post I had to interview her when she appeared in Cape Town on the Adam Wade show.
I made my way to the Retreat Hotel where she was staying and stood at the open door not sure when whether to go in.
“Wat staan djy by die fokken deur, come in! If you have questions, ask them.”
It was also on the Adam Wade show that she had her memorable heart attack on stage. Some say she had made a remarkable recovery by the next day.
That was Thandi. She performed in London, was honoured with a Woman of Distinction Award in Canada but was firmly rooted in South Africa.
On International Women’s Day we should remember a personality like Thandi Klaasen who lived life to the fullest but when the chips were down, fought hard for equal standing in a very unequal society. She was bold and she fought for change.
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